Stylish Celtic turn the screw to underline dominance
Celtic 4 Rangers 0
Brendan Rodgers cited humility as a Celtic character trait in the build-up to this match, but it was Rangers who were humbled yet again by an emphatic Old Firm derby defeat.
Tempting as it is to declare that Celtic strode into the Scottish Cup final against Motherwell next month, the truth was that their progress was a stroll.
For all of Graeme Murty's talk of using the pain of defeat in last month's derby at Ibrox as a motivational tool for this encounter, the Rangers manager was at an utter loss to explain why his players stood off a Celtic side who were visibly gratified to be allowed unwonted time and space to assert their domination.
The cost to Murty of this setback will be the loss of his place on the shortlist of candidates when the Ibrox board considers who should be in charge next season but, despite the assertion by the Rangers chairman Dave King that 'immediate success' is required, it will not be delivered by the club's current squad.
Only Celtic exceed them in financial clout in Scotland, but a gulf remains and, for as long as the Hoops' advantage is pressed by a manager as driven as Rodgers, Rangers will struggle to emerge as plausible contenders for domestic honours. This occasion presented them with their last chance to interfere with Celtic's push towards a second clean sweep of the Scottish prizes, but Murty's players looked timid and apprehensive from the start.
His deployment was a 4-2-3-1 matchup with Celtic, but Rangers' advanced midfielder stood off their opposite numbers, a fatal error which permitted Scott Brown, Olivier Ntcham, and Tom Rogic to dominate the heart of the pitch, with James Forrest and Callum McGregor allowed to roam the flanks, all to the advantage of Moussa Dembele, who demonstrated his predatory qualities after five minutes, when he volleyed a lofted pass from Ntcham off a post.
In fact, the most significant interruption of Celtic's rhythm was caused by an influx of dozens of balloons released by spectators, which blew about the pitch until Bobby Madden called a halt and instructed the players to burst them. It did not take long after the resumption of proceedings for Rangers' hopes to be punctured.
Dembele and Forrest combined to find Rogic in the Rangers' box and the Australian spun Ross McCrorie off balance before shooting past Wes Foderingham with a rare use of his right foot.
McCrorie had a chance of redemption when Craig Gordon slipped at a corner but, with the goalkeeper out of the equation, the Rangers defender headed wide of the mark.
Celtic's domination was so emphatic that when Russell Martin could do no better than turn a Kieran Tierney cross into the path of McGregor, who promptly drove it beyond Foderingham, the notion of a Rangers comeback defied the imagination. Murty reacted by replacing Andy Halliday with Josh Windass for what remained of the first half.
Halliday, on his 100th outing for the club, responded by treating the Rangers bench to a volley of imprecations as he left the pitch.
Whatever hope Murty retained of diverting fortune disappeared within five minutes of the restart when Dembele got goal-side of McCrorie, who had three yanks at the striker's jersey before finally toppling him inside the box.
The outcome was McCrorie's dismissal and a cool conversion from the spot. Rangers' task was now the avoidance of humiliation, a prospect that loomed when Jason Holt fouled Patrick Roberts - who had replaced Forrest - for another penalty, which was tucked away by Ntcham for Celtic's fourth.
Between these, incredibly, Rangers might have scored three times, but Gordon produced spectacular one-armed blocks on headers from Alfredo Morelos and Bruno Alves. The goalkeeper was, however, beaten by a wild slice from his right-back, Mikael Lustig, which ricocheted off the crossbar.
The rebound, though, fell to Morelos, who extended his impeccable record of missing gift chances in Old Firm derbies, by shooting straight at Gordon from six yards.
Celtic's devotion to humility was not evident in Brown's response to victory, when the Parkhead captain was reminded that the Rangers had cheered the semi-final draw which paired them with the Bhoys.
"I don't think they'll be cheering tonight," he said. "We knew as soon as we turned up that we'd win it."
Murty, meanwhile, was mired in frustration.
"We just didn't get close to anyone, it took half an hour to make a tackle," he said. "I'll apologise for the first half. It's a lonely place out there, but we need to make sure this doesn't happen again.
"I won't talk about my role at this time, it's not about me."
For Rodgers, the focus is upon closing two imminent deals.
"The important thing now is to close up the league," he said. "The final will be a tough game.
"You saw Motherwell yesterday (against Aberdeen). They work hard and won't make it easy." (© Daily Telegraph, London)