Twist in Old Firm tale denies Mowbray
It was neither the best of times nor the worst of times in this city of two tales -- for Celtic, another chapter of familiar frustration, while Rangers emerged to relate a highly improbable escape yarn, watched from the stands by Roy Keane, Gordon Strachan and Rod Stewart.
Just as this contest looked certain to grind to a scoreless conclusion, it produced two goals in as many minutes to leave the top of the Scottish Premier League table unchanged.
Scott McDonald came off the bench to glance a perfectly judged header from Aiden McGeady's equally delectable cross past Allan McGregor. But hardly had the Celtic fans' victory anthems achieved ear-splitting volume than Rangers struck back with their single decent effort on target, a Lee McCulloch header from a Steven Davis corner kick, pitched into the six-yard box for the defender to bullet his effort beyond Artur Boruc.
Old Firm derbies are rarely so one-sided; both managers declared it so. Celtic had to settle for the small satisfactions of having disrupted Rangers' considerable momentum, built up over six consecutive victories to the tune of 26 goals scored for four conceded.
The champions also added to their disciplinary tally which means they will have to play their league match against Hearts at Tynecastle on January 23 without both of their first-choice attackers, Kris Boyd and Kenny Miller.
Miller missed this encounter, having lost his appeal against a red card for violent conduct administered in Rangers' 7-1 thrashing of Dundee United last Wednesday, and Boyd will join him on the sidelines for clattering into Danny Fox eight minutes after the break. McCulloch, too, will miss the visit to Tynecastle after earning a caution.
Kyle Lafferty was one lucky boy not to join them on the sidelines when he escaped with a yellow card for thudding into Andreas Hinkel with a straight-leg, studs-up tackle that could have done a lot more damage had the German not been able to take a degree of avoiding action.
That was the first big call from Steve Conroy in his first outing in charge of an Old Firm game in 16 years of refereeing and if many in the stadium thought he had erred on the safe side, few would have extended him that leeway for his decision to disallow a header by Marc-Antoine Fortune, which beat McGregor below his crossbar.
Fortune certainly flung an arm up as he jumped but no infringement was flagged by the near-side assistant, nor did repeated views of the TV replays make it any clearer what Conroy had detected to render the goal illegal.
Many another manager might have condemned the referee for such a judgment call, but Tony Mowbray was not for haranguing the official.
"I thought the referee had a good game and I hardly noticed him, to be honest," said the Celtic manager. "He obviously saw a foul and gave it."
In any case, Mowbray had more to fret about in the way his players yet again failed to enforce superior play with goals and marred an otherwise decent defensive play by conceding an avoidable equaliser.
"I feel that we were in the ascendancy for the vast majority of the game," he said. "Chances came and went. Do we feel we should have won? Yes, but that's football and we lost a poor goal from our point of view. If you are a Celtic fan, hope should spring eternal that we will improve and we will try to build a team that can win the league for the next five or six seasons.
"There will be comings and goings in January. Some people will leave this football club and some will come in."
Such utterances are always added lustre by victory and Mowbray might have been celebrating his first Old Firm success if, aside from the disallowed Fortune goal, Barry Robson's floated header had not skipped off the crossbar before the break when the flow of traffic was almost entirely towards McGregor, as was demonstrated by Celtic's interval tally of six corner kicks to none for Rangers.
Georgios Samaras, allowed remarkable latitude by the Ibrox side, periodically roused the home support by creating gaping openings and then punctured the fans' hopes by finding ever more inventive ways to miss them -- although it took a world-class save by McGregor to divert a volcanic shot from the Greek late in the proceedings.
Fortune, meanwhile, found that his name should have been prefaced by "ill-'', as his disallowed effort was followed by other attempts that could not quite find the mark.
The second half brought a shift in the balance of play for a spell. Rangers racked up three corners in five minutes to play on their opponents' nerves and fears that the back door could spring ajar at any time.
McDonald, fretting and fidgeting his time on the bench, was at last allowed to replace Marc Crosas and repaid his appearance by connecting with the McGeady cross that opened the scoring, against a Rangers side far-removed from the slick-passing outfit who ripped through the December fixture schedule.
With Boyd marginalised by the nature of the contest and the inability of his colleagues to deliver decent supply, and Lafferty's impression of a headless chicken, the only way Rangers looked capable of retrieving the situation was from a set-piece.
And so it transpired, 140 seconds after McDonald's goal, when Davis's delivery from a corner on the right was despatched with alacrity by the eager McCulloch, who took full advantage of Celtic's negligence in leaving him unmarked.
Rangers had made the best of a bad job, as Smith freely admitted, when he said: "Celtic were the better side throughout the game. We had to work hard to contain them and a point was obviously much better for us than for Celtic. We lost Nacho Novo early in the game and that further reduced the spark and mobility we normally get from him, DaMarcus Beasley and Kenny Miller. Celtic were far brighter in all areas of the field but, while we can't say we deserved a point, we dug in and showed the kind of character that got us something from the game.
"Celtic did well but they continued to miss the chances they created and Allan McGregor's save from Samaras was absolutely fantastic."
As was predicted in these pages on Saturday, the occasion was not definitive and we will have to wait some time to see whose great expectations will be matched by achievement -- and who will be condemned to hard times come May. (© Daily Telegraph, London)