Rangers have moved 19 points clear of Celtic at the top of the Scottish Premiership with a 1-0 win over their bitter rivals in 2021’s first Old Firm in an emotional afternoon at Ibrox.
Despite being under the cosh for long spells, Callum McGregor’s own goal has seen the Light Blues take a massive step towards the title and leave the Gers in the driving seat to end a decade-long wait to regain their league crown.
The Light Blues made two changes from the midweek win over St. Mirren with Leon Balogun and Ryan Kent returning to the starting XI as Filip Helander and Ianis Hagi dropped to the bench [Rangers]
Before the game, James Tavernier and Callum McGregor laid wreathes in the centre circle before a minute silence to mark the 50th anniversary of the Ibrox disaster.
While there might have been no fans inside Ibrox, it was the usual frenetic Old Firm start with the ball pinging from end to end and Allan McGregor forced into a big save to deny Odsonne Edouard with only two minutes gone.
McGregor was again the saviour for Rangers a few minutes later when Balogun’s header was short and allowed Celtic to pick up possession in a dangerous area, the Gers keeper making an impressive stop from Griffiths to keep it 0-0.
It was really poor start from the Light Blues, with their moves forward breaking down too easily and giving Celtic opportunities to dictate the tempo; Neil Lennon’s side looking far more likely to make something happen.
Celtic continued to probe the Rangers defence, Callum McGregor seeing an effort from distance go just wide of the post with the Light Blues looking rattled and miles off the pace.
There were some glimmers of hope for Rangers through, Ryan Kent looking hungry to make his make on the game and Glen Kamara charging around the field trying to win the ball.
It took almost 20 minutes for the Gers’ to get their first real chance at goal before Allan McGregor pulled out a save from the top drawer to keep Griffith’s effort out as it looked to be curling into the top corner.
The veteran was keeping Rangers in it as the opening 45 and Steven Gerrard needed more of his players to stand up if they were going to make it a 19 point gap at the top of the Scottish Premiership.
Rangers lacked any realy urgency to press Celtic when they were on the ball and were constantly let down by their own poor passing going forward, keeping the Gers pinned back for spells.
That was leaving the front three of Roofe, Kent and Morelos isolated from the play and frustrated as they were left relying on scraps to test the Celtic defence.
With the clock ticking down to the break, Rangers looked content to get to the turnaround with the scoreline level and Gerrard will surely have been considering turning to his substitutes for the second half.
The absence of Ryan Jack and Scott Arfield was being keenly felt by the Gers with Gerrard’s side lacking someone in midfield to put their foot on the ball and goe toe-to-toe with Celtic’s midfielders.
Rangers almost had the moment of luck they needed after 41 minutes when Kemar Roofe got on the end of McGregor’s clearance to send Morelos charging at goal before a last-ditch tackle by Laxalt halted the Colombian as readied to shoot.
As the sides went in at the break, it will have been Gerrard who will have been happiest with the scoreline but the Ibrox gaffer can’t have been happy with the performance his side had served up in the opening 45.
The Gers boss did turn to his substitutes at the break, Ianis Hagi replacing Kemar Roofe in a surprise move by the Light Blues gaffer as he looked for a better performance.
The Romanian almost made an immediate impact, firing just wide from the edge of the area as the hosts started the second 45 a bit better than the first – although they still looked well off their best.
It was definitely a more encouraging spell for Rangers, but too many times moves would fail as passes were misplaced or misjudged, eventually turning over possession.
Leon Balogun came to Rangers’ rescue with an excellent block to stop Edouard’s effort on goal and the Nigerian really grew into the game after looking a bit shakey.
The game spun on its head just afterwards as Nir Bitton was shown a red card for hauling Morelos down as he charged towards goal, leaving Rangers almost half an hour to make their advantage count.
The resulting free-kick should have been diverted into the back of the net after Tavernier’s fantastic delivery was missed by both Hagi and Goldson with Barkas rooted to the spot.
Rangers immediately took control of the ball and started probing the Celtic defence and spraying passes around for the first time in the game.
Another chance to open the scoring came from a set-piece on the edge of the area after Laxalt brought Tavernier down, leaving Barisic a fantastic chance to curl one home – but the Croatian’s effort was diverted wide.
The resulting corner did bring the breakthrough though as Joe Aribo’s flick-on came off Callum McGregor and into the net to completely turn the game around.
70' GOAL! GOAL! GOAL! Rangers open the scoring from a corner. An own goal from McGregor | 1-0 pic.twitter.com/WNpBtS3EvM
— Rangers Football Club (@RangersFC) January 2, 2021
There was the inevitable on-field fracas after a lazy and late challenge from Shane Duffy that ended with Morelos and Callum McGregor booked – the Colombian replaced by Cedric Itten a few minutes later.
After spending so long looking like they were in trouble, the Gers now seemed comfortable and in control of the game – and could even have grabbed a second when Itten flashed an effort just over the bar.
With the clock running down, Gerrard again turned to his subs as he handed an Old Firm debut to Bongani Zungu in place of Ryan Kent before taking Joe Aribo off for Brandon Barker.
A nervy finale saw Rangers defending well on the edge of their area as Celtic desperately scrambled for an equaliser – but the Light Blues made it to the final whistle and give Gers fans a perfect start to 2021.
Rangers: McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Balogun, Barisic, Davis, Kamara, Aribo, Roofe, Kent, Morelos
Subs: McLaughlin, Bassey, Helander, Patterson, Hagi, Zungu, Defoe, Itten
Celtic: Barkas, Frimpong, Bitton, Ajer, Laxalt, Christie, Soro, McGregor, Turnbull, Edouard, Griffiths
Subs: Hazard, Taylor, Duffy, Brown, Ajeti, Rogic, Ntcham, Elyounoussi, El Hamed
Steven Gerrard left fans split with his starting XI before the game – read what had them disagreeing here