Samaras shines in Old Firm heat
Rangers 0 Celtic 2
ON an afternoon freighted with sombre recollections of events at the same stadium 40 years ago, Celtic left Ibrox with the status of favourites for the current Scottish championship.
On January 2, 1971, a 1-1 draw in the traditional New Year Old Firm derby was sufficient to allow Jock Stein's team to maintain their distance from Rangers, but the calamitous aftermath of that occasion -- the Ibrox Disaster that left 66 dead and 145 injured on the steps of Stairway 13 -- cast a pall over the season.
The rebuilt Ibrox was designed to provide a safe arena for passions, such as the raucous bedlam of the Glasgow rivalry, to be vented within its confines. Yesterday, it was required to act as a forum for remembrance of the tragedy that led to its reconstruction.
Rangers, arrayed in a commemorative jersey, were led out by John Greig, who captained them four decades ago. It was profoundly touching to see him march across the turf alongside Billy McNeill, the Celtic captain of that era, to a heartfelt reception from the fans, both sets of whom observed the subsequent minute's silence impeccably.
Appropriate respect then gave way to customary bedlam as the overture to a fixture that was widely predicted to run more comfortably for Rangers, under the experienced supervision of Walter Smith, than for Celtic, who had made heavy weather of the five consecutive home fixtures that preceded this game.
Moreover, Neil Lennon had been deprived of the services of a raft of players who would have started or been in contention. Skipper Scott Brown was suspended, the South Korean pair of Cha Du Ri and Ki Sung Yeung are on international duty at the Asian Cup, while Shaun Maloney, Gary Hooper, Olivier Kapo and Daryl Murphy are all injured.
Much of the pre-match speculation concerned Freddie Ljungberg, who signed for Celtic on Friday, but the former Arsenal midfield man had picked up a virus and was also ruled out.
In the event, he was not missed and it was the Bhoys who were celebrating at the final whistle, courtesy of two goals from Georgios Samaras.
At that point, Lennon exchanged some angry words with fellow Northern Irishman Kyle Lafferty. Lennon shook every other Rangers player's hand but offered the forward only the rough edge of his tongue.
In the aftermath of Rangers' 3-1 victory at Parkhead in October, Lafferty tweeted some particularly insulting remarks about Lennon and this, for the older man, was payback time and he wanted to ensure it was done face to face and not from a computer keyboard.
When questioned about the incident, Lennon replied: "You might read about it on his Twitter page."
The altercation, however, could not spoil the manager's afternoon. "It's a wonderful feeling," he said. "I'm very, very proud of my players. I didn't expect us to come here and be so dominant but we took everything they could throw at us and we could have scored more goals."
Samaras had opened the scoring with Celtic's first effort on target and he completed the scoring from the penalty spot after drawing the foul from Madjid Bougherra.
They were not only the first goals the Greek had scored at Ibrox but the first goals he has contributed in the league this season. Samaras is out of contract come May, but Lennon hopes he can be persuaded to extend his stay at Parkhead.
"'Sammy' doesn't want to leave this club," he said. "He needs to be more consistent but he knows that. We need to keep working and trying to get the best out of him because he was unplayable out there.
"Is it a mental thing with him? It could be. He's only 25 so he's yet to reach his peak, but now he's set this benchmark people will be expecting him to play like that every week. We won't, but he has all the attributes to be anything he wants to be."
Samaras, for his part, made it clear that his preference would be to remain in Glasgow in spite of reported interest from Atletico Madrid and Sporting Lisbon. "The crucial thing is that the manager wants me to stay," he said. "Celtic are a massive club, known all around the world.
"Every year we play European football and try to win trophies, which is the most important thing for any player. At the end of your career you want to sit down and remember what you've won." Lennon is convinced that yesterday's triumph may prove to be the springboard for them to prevent Rangers from winning a third successive title.
"This result is huge in terms of the championship," he said. "Most people had written us off and said that my team didn't win the big games. Well, we've won this one and we've done it in style."
Rangers haven't won a New Year Old Firm match since 1997 and they could have played until midnight and still not have found the net.
Walter Smith's side failed to force a save from Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster and produced a performance riddled with unforced errors, with Richard Foster's sloppy pass, which led to the opening goal, symptomatic of their afternoon.
Lennon effectively 'Waltered' Rangers, soaking up the pressure and hitting their opponents on the break in the same manner that Smith's teams have plundered results at Parkhead.
"The first goal was always going to be vital," said Smith. "It gave Celtic something to hold on to. They just sat back and we needed to score in order to force them to come out but we just didn't create enough and that, along with losing two poor goals, was the most disappointing aspect for us.
"If Celtic had scored great goals then this result would have been easier to take. I don't think that we were flat; sometimes you just have to give credit to the opposition and the way they played worked very well for them."
Two years ago Gordon Strachan's Celtic twice squandered a seven-point advantage as Rangers came from behind to win the title and home captain David Weir is confident that they can do so again, particularly since winning their two matches in hand would transform a four-point deficit into a two-point lead.
"We lost today but time will tell how big an influence that is on the eventual outcome," said the 40-year-old defender. "There's still a long way to go and it's up to us to regroup, pick ourselves up and start again." (© Daily Telegraph, London)