Ledley propels Hoops to summit
Celtic 1 Rangers 0
THEY came on to their own field to be greeted by hundreds of sheets of red and blue Christmas foil wrapping paper brought by the Rangers fans and distributed across the Parkhead pitch by the ferocious wind, but it was Celtic who got the seasonal present that looked impossibly out of reach only a few weeks ago -- leadership of the Scottish Premier League.
The game hinged on two moments at the same post of the goal in front of the Jock Stein stand.
The first occurred early in the proceedings when a Lee Wallace header seemed to cross the goal-line without being seen by the assistant referee on the far side.
There was no doubt about the second, seven minutes after the break, when an impressive surge of Celtic pressure culminated in a corner-kick placed perfectly by Charlie Mulgrew for his fellow defender Joe Ledley to send a powerful header high into the net.
That was enough to enable Celtic to leapfrog Rangers into pole position.
The severe gale force winds that battered Scotland yesterday came close to claiming this game as a victim of the elements when it was noticed a couple of hours before kick-off that the electronic scoreboard hanging from the roof of the Lisbon Lions stand was swaying alarmingly.
Happily, it was secured by a group of spidermen, who were not to be envied.
Rangers, too, had maintained a precarious position on top of the SPL table -- a grasp that had been prised loose by defeats away to Kilmarnock and St Mirren and three draws at Ibrox, which, combined with Celtic's autumn resurgence, dispensed with all but one of the 15 points they had savoured as an advantage over their ancient rivals as recently as November 5.
It had been widely expected that Ally McCoist would opt for the 4-5-1 template favoured by his predecessor and mentor Walter Smith but, although he fielded half a dozen players with experience in central defence and could have installed Kyle Bartley and Lee McCulloch in front of a back four of Kirk Broadfoot, Carlos Bocanegra, Sasa Papac and Wallace to block the central through routes, the Rangers manager opted for a 4-4-2, like Celtic.
That said, the opening passage was familiar from these encounters at this ground, with Rangers content to permit Celtic possession in areas where little or no damage could be sustained by the visitors, while hoping for the excess of ambition that would permit them to spring the counter-attack.
In this case, it developed on the right, with Steven Davis directing the operation until Sone Aluko struck a delivery over Fraser Forster's six-yard line towards Wallace, who had stolen unseen into position for a bulleted header that was clawed out by the Hoops 'keeper, off an upright.
TV replays appeared to show that the ball had crossed the line but it was scrambled behind for a corner.
The wind was markedly more treacherous at the other end of the field but Celtic were unable to make as much of the conditions as might have been expected.
They did use Adam Matthews' long-throw ability to get the ball into the Rangers box but only once succeeded in putting Allan McGregor under aerial pressure, when he flapped when challenged by Georgios Samaras.
McGregor did have other frights but they were from low -- and largely hopeful -- efforts by Gary Hooper which rebounded from the goalkeeper's body, but not in the direction of any well placed Celtic player, and the break duly arrived goalless.
Rangers began the second half at a promising pace but Celtic's response -- which climaxed with Ledley's goal -- changed the complexion of the game immediately.
Rangers were on the ropes, trying desperately to stem the green and white tide, and the Ibrox side were lucky to escape when Hooper appeared to be wrongly flagged offside as he raced clear of the visiting defence.
In the 76th minute, Celtic midfielder Beram Kayal went off injured on a stretcher, to be replaced by Ki Sung-Yueng, after a clash with McCulloch which originally looked to have hurt the Rangers player more.
Moments later, David Healy was booked within minutes of his arrival from the bench for a scything tackle on James Forrest. As the game entered the final stages, and Celtic had not sealed the win, the tension increased and the visitors looked in danger of losing the plot.
With four minutes remaining Rangers striker Kyle Lafferty was booked for a late challenge on Matthews.
But Celtic held on and celebrated that numeric sequence which resonates so well in the east end of Glasgow -- nine in row, as their current record of league victories extends towards a very promising 2012.
Meanwhile, Pat Fenlon claimed his first point as Hibernian manager last night but was denied a victory as Inverness came from behind for an draw at Easter Road.
Garry O'Connor netted an eighth-minute free-kick for his first goal since September 28 -- when Hibs beat St Johnstone for their only home win since February -- but Jonny Hayes easily cut through the home defence and levelled after 41 minutes.
The result saw 10th-placed Inverness, who also hit the post through Richie Foran, retain a four-point lead over Hibs, who moved a point clear of bottom club Dunfermline.
How Hibs could do with a positive result in Monday's Edinburgh derby with Hearts, but they will need to improve on this performance after looking shaky at the back and lacking a cutting edge up front.
Fenlon's reign began at Motherwell, when fire forced a half-time abandonment with Hibs leading 1-0, and losses to Rangers, Aberdeen and Dundee United followed. (© Daily Telegraph, London)