Hooper runs riot to leave Gers reeling
AS CHELSEA are finding out the in English Premier League, invaluable experienced players can suddenly become old, slow and past their sell-by date. That was the the story of this game, and quite likely the rest of this Scottish season as Celtic moved eight points clear at the summit.
Walter Smith, the silver-haired fox of Ibrox, and his captain David Weir -- now eating into his fifth decade -- have been around the block many times but they were left standing at the corner by Neil Lennon, in his tyro year as an Old Firm manager, and a Celtic side with an average age of 23.
Lennon called things flawlessly and his players responded with a
victory in the fourth Old Firm derby of the season to take their destiny into their own hands for the first time.
Gary Hooper -- always likely to produce a goal or two, according to his manager -- came up with two splendid first-half strikes to put the issue beyond a Rangers side weary in both legs and brain.
Salt was rubbed into Rangers' wounds with 20 minutes left to play when Kris Commons, a target for Smith until Celtic used their financial muscle to divert him to the east end of Glasgow, strode unchecked through midfield, measured his target and despatched a superlative drive that shimmied this way and that on its way past Allan McGregor.
For the remainder of the proceedings Rangers were taunted by the Celtic support and the effortless ease with which their opponents shuttled passes across the breadth of the pitch.
Smith later rejected suggestions that fatigue had played a part in his team's failure to perform, but the evidence suggested that, having been in Europa League action against Sporting Lisbon less than 72 hours previously, Rangers were low on gas and without means of refuelling, as was demonstrated when David Healy replaced El-Hadji Diouf to no greater effect that the Senegalese had on the match.
Indeed, Celtic had to address concerns only twice. The first few minutes saw their central defensive partnership of Daniel Majstorovic and Charlie Mulgrew look uneasy under pressure in the air, but Rangers were unable to press the point and the alarm soon subsided.
For 10 minutes after the break, Rangers managed to play with sufficient purpose to press Lennon's players back, but aside from a chip by Diouf that was tipped away by Fraser Forster and a header by Nikica Jelavic that bounced across the goalmouth, the champions had nothing to offer by way of menace.
Celtic, in vivid contrast, converted outfield play into penalty box action with admirable economy. After 17 minutes Steven Whittaker found himself stranded when Celtic found Commons in space on their left flank behind the Rangers full-back.
Commons' cutback still left Hooper with work to do, but the forward made light of it with an adept touch on the ball that left Weir utterly confounded as he watched his opponent stride on to sweep his drive beyond McGregor.
Celtic's second also saw the Rangers captain exposed, this time as he attempted to press up on a counter-attack but misjudged his timing and allowed Emilio Izaguirre a 10-yard start on the hopelessly stranded back-line.
The Honduran full-back pushed across the edge of the box and guided a bouncing cross past McGregor and into Hooper's path, but again there was no question of a simple tap-in for the striker. Once more, though, Hooper proved equal to the demand and bent his body across the line of the pass to thrash his finish into the empty net.
Rangers still had 18 minutes to endure before they could draw breath in the dressing-room. However, Celtic remained wary of Rangers' practised ability to strike on the counter and were content to keep Smith's players on the back foot until the break.
It was inevitable that Rangers would respond after the restart and for a spell their play was more assured.
However, their underlying uncertainty was again on show when McGregor uncharacteristically flapped at a lob from Georgios Samaras and succeeded only in directing it towards Scott Brown, whose goalbound header was cleared by Sasa Papac.
Thwarted in his attempt to get on the scoresheet, Brown was nevertheless in regal form, strutting and striding over the pitch from back to front and flank to flank. The much anticipated feud with Diouf never materialised, in large part because the Rangers man was mostly off the pace -- although not so much as the largely anonymous Maurice Edu.
A further blow to Rangers was administered when Steven Naismith failed to resume action after the interval, having aggravated a hamstring strain that will now keep him out of action when his colleagues travel to Lisbon and return to Celtic Park, a pair of destinations which offer them little prospect of consolation. (© Daily Telegraph, London)