Monday 20 November 2017

Dembele hits hat-trick as Celtic inspired by spirit of Stein

Celtic 5-1 Rangers

Celtic's Moussa Dembele with the match ball following his hat trick Photo: Jeff Holmes/PA Wire
Celtic's Moussa Dembele with the match ball following his hat trick Photo: Jeff Holmes/PA Wire

Roddy Forsyth

Like parents poring over the first ultrasound image of their infant in the womb, both sides of Glasgow's football divide have spent the weekend imagining how this season will look to them when it reaches term.

So emphatic were many of the conclusions rendered on radio phone-ins and online that it is easy to forget that Celtic have played exactly four league games in defence of their title, while Rangers have completed five.

Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

However, it was inevitable that Celtic's facile victory in the first Old Firm league derby since April 2012 would spawn extreme responses - exultant and apocalyptic, according to taste.

For a start, the occasion presented vivid contrasts with the meeting of these sides in last season's Scottish Cup semi-final, when Rangers prevailed after a penalty decider.

Celtic were badly stung by the manner in which defeat was inflicted by a Rangers side, who were notably the more confident and aggressive.

That performance, however, was produced against a Celtic team under the soft-focus leadership of Ronny Deila, whose players had enjoyed an unimpeded romp to two Scottish titles, but had failed to navigate a passage through the Champions League qualifiers.

Rangers' success was also achieved at Hampden Park, where the stands are not proximate to the action and the crowd is split 50-50.

Parkhead was another world entirely, inhabited on Saturday by more than 50,000 home fans who scented raw quarry and players whose predatory instincts had been aroused by Joey Barton's antics on social media and honed by Brendan Rodgers' invocation of past glory on the 31st anniversary of Jock Stein's death.

An image of Stein was unfurled in the stadium alongside, it must be said, other images which the legendary manager would have held in contempt - one of which was a sex doll rendered as a hooded Rangers supporter, hands bound behind his back, suspended from a tier of the stand.

Bitter

In reality, of course, Saturday's event was simply the extension of a saga of rivalry; initially amicable, then bitter, extending back to the first meeting of Celtic and Rangers on the same site in 1888.

As Neil Lennon, former Celtic captain and manager, remarked on the eve of the match: "There are always subplots with the Old Firm, but this one is a whole new chapter."

It certainly read well for new man Rodgers in his first experience of the iconic fixture.

Deprived of his top scorer by Leigh Griffiths' hamstring injury, he could not have expected Moussa Dembele to respond with a hat-trick.

Dembele's interaction with goalscorer Scott Sinclair was equally gratifying to the Hoops manager and Stuart Armstrong's contribution of a fifth goal in injury-time was a splendid bonus from the substitute.

In contrast, Mark Warburton's tactics and selection have been called into question - not for the first time.

He was entitled to explain Rangers' unconvincing start to their league campaign by citing the number of players imported during the summer and the inevitable time that is required to get them to operate as a unit.

Andy Halliday, a defensive anchor, was left on the bench and Niko Kranjcar allowed to start in a game which makes gruelling demands on stamina. The Croatian's legs were gone by half-time and his flailing attempts to compensate saw him lucky not to be sent off.

Comical

Joe Garner's header to make it 2-1 at half-time gave Rangers some sense of hope, but they were 3-1 behind when Philippe Senderos was red-carded for a comical slap at a bouncing ball, which meant they were left with no central defenders.

Rangers have played two major games in four months and have lost both - the first being the Scottish Cup final in May.

Had the Hibs fans not invaded the field at the end, Warburton would have faced awkward questions about how Rangers had conceded nearly identical late goals to go down as the team against whom the Easter Road side ended 114 years of fruitless Cup football.

The scrutiny of Old Firm club fortunes is harsh and unrelenting, as Warburton is now about to discover.

He will - as have all Celtic and Rangers managers under such pressure - take refuge in pointing out that the season is embryonic and that many points will be dropped along the way.

That said, he needs to convince the Rangers supporters that he is capable of pragmatic responses when circumstances demand them.

Celtic, meanwhile, are now about to be subjected to a severely demanding calibration of their own capabilities, summed up in this daunting equation: Barcelona, Nou Camp, Champions League opening group stage fixture.

Irish Independent

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