Rangers have drawn 1-1 wih Celtic in the final Old Firm clash of the season as the Light Blues’ title defence looks to have finally ended with six points between the sides and three games left.
Gio van Bronckhorst made three changes from the 1-0 defeat by RB Leipzig in midweek, Steven Davis, Scott Arfield and Fashion Sakala coming into the starting XI in place of Glen Kamara, Ryan Jack and Scott Wright.
With the Light Blues still short of attacking options, Joe Aribo again started leading the line for the Gers and the game got off to a typical frantic opening as both sides looked to get control.
It was Rangers who looked the most likely to make something happen early on, getting the ball forward at speed and turning the Celtic defence towards their own goal.
The visitors were looking the more up for it of the two, snapping into challenges, pressing with intensity and getting in their hosts’ faces in the opening ten minutes.
Rangers would have the first real chance of the game, Kent ghosting in behind Ralston to get on the end of a fantastic delivery from Tavernier but the wideman should have done better with his effort at goal.
Everything the Light Blues were doing was going through John Lundstram as the midfielder pulled the strings as he tried to set the tempo in the middle of the park.
Just as Rangers were looking comfortable, Celtic took the lead against the run of play, Jota firing home from Maeda’s cutback after exploiting some slack defending from the Gers; Barisic falling asleep and being beaten to a ball that should have been his at the back post.
Having been on top for the opening twenty minutes, it was a real sickener for Rangers and brought the home fans to life after spending much of the afternoon to that point in near-silence.
Going behind completely knocked Rangers’ confidence and van Bronckhorst’s side suddenly struggled to complete simple passes and retain possession as Celtic moved through the gears.
The malaise didn’t last too long for Rangers though, rediscovering their stride after five minutes or so and starting to put pressure on the Celtic defence again, although the game was far more open than before the goal.
There was even a penalty claim, albeit a soft one, when Callum McGregor challenged Aribo inside the area but there was little in it and John Beaton saw nothing worth a spot-kick.
As the first half reached the half-hour mark, it was clear the game was passing Fashion Sakala by, the Zambian offering little on either side of the ball and going through the motions when Rangers needed everybody to be giving 100%.
A couple of corners for the Light Blues came to nothing, both going far too deep and missing every blue jersey inside the Celtic box.
There was a lucky escape for Rangers just before the break Maeda bottling it as McGregor rushed out of his goal and missing when he should have scored and made it 2-0 at what would have been the worst point possible.
Surprisingly, there were no changes at the break for Rangers when there really should have been at least one, if not two, as van Bronckhorst stuck to his guns.
The Light Blues won an early corner after the restart, sparking calls for a penalty for a handball before Connor Goldson fired over the bar.
It was a promising enough start to the second 45 and replays show it should have been a spot kick to the Light Blues for a handball by O’Reilly.
The first yellow card came after 50 minutes, Ralston earning a yellow for a dangerous tackle on Arfield and the defender was probably lucky it wasn’t a red with Arfield taking a sore one.
John Lundstram was again central to anything positive from Rangers, the Englishman seeming to relish the battle in midfield and making a huge difference for Rangers.
Van Bronckhorst finally turned to his subs with just over an hour gone, bringing Ryan Jack and Scott Wright on for Steven Davis and Joe Aribo.
Barisic would find himself in John Beaton’s book a few moments later when he hauled Jota down near the byline and handed Celtic a free-kick in dangerous area.
As the energy started to drop out of the game a little, Rangers found themselves back on level terms as Fashion Sakala finally made an impact on the game.
The Zambian drilled the ball low beyond Joe Hart after some lovely football by Rangers, Sakala’s effort beating Hart at his near-post with ease.
Like Celtic’s goal earlier, it came against the run of play but was a really well-worked goal by the Light Blues with Sakala’s finish as good as you’ll see.
Having been moved centrally after the subs, Sakala had come alive and had achance to make it 2-1 a few minutes after his goal, forcing a strong save from Joe Hart at the cost of a corner – Sakala getting on the end of the set-piece but heading over.
Rangers had Celtic on the ropes again as the minutes ticked away and frustrations of the home fans were clear to hear.
It was Celtic’s turn to get away with one when Sakala put Hart under enough pressure to cause the keeper to fall but when the ball broke to Ryan Kent he couldn’t get a shot away as Hart recovered.
Moments after almost being the villain for Celtic, Hart was the hero, denying Rangers twice in the space of seconds as Rangers pushed for a dramatic late winner; Arfield and Jack both seeing their efforts stopped by the former England international.
The chances continued to come for the Gers, Sakala cracking the base of the post from close range after breaking the offside trap.
Amad Diallo was introduced for the final minutes, replacing Scott Arfield and the Manchester United youngster immediately took one for the team, bringing down Abada and killing a Celtic counter just 36 seconds after coming on.
Just as the game looked to pass without any majorly controversial refereeing decisions, Sakala was flagged for offsided when clear through, Cameron Carter-Vickers playing him onside as he law sprawled on the turf.
That would be the last action of the afternoon and attention now turns to Thursday’s Europa League semi-final clash with RB Leipzig at Ibrox.
Rangers: McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Bassey, Barisic, Lundstram, Davis, Arfield, Fashion Jr, Aribo, Kent.
Subs: McLaughlin, King, Jack, Kamara, Sands, Lowry, Amad, Itten, Wright.
Celtic: Hart, Ralston, Carter-Vickers, Starfelt, Taylor, McGregor, Hatate, O’Riley, Jota, Kyogo, Maeda.
Subs: Bain, Bitton, Giakoumakis, Abada, Turnbull, McCarthy, Rogic, Forrest, Welsh.