Celtic fans are used to frustration this season, but this was next level.
For so long, the Bhoys were completely dominant. The formation looked perfect for the occasion, but the Bhoys just couldn’t get past Allan McGregor in the Rangers goal.
Neil Lennon will be beyond upset with his players; he did everything the fans would’ve wanted, and has been so successful in recent weeks.
It wasn’t enough.
Nir Bitton’s ridiculous sending-off, a completely unnecessary and panicked bit of “defending”, changed the game for Celtic. From aggressive pressing and fast tempo, the Bhoys had to change their shape and the play from Rangers’ goal onwards was agricultural.
Here are three lessons from Celtic’s heartbreaking loss at Ibrox.
Tempo was crucial for Celtic
In the first 45, this match was an absolute mirror image of the loss at Celtic Park. The team selection gave Celtic supporters real hope, and we looked excellent value for a win.
From the first whistle, the Bhoys were all over Gerrard’s side, beating them every ball and interrupting every move.
The pressure from Celtic was absolutely constant, with Lennon’s youthful side dominating possession and creating a huge number of chances. In the first half, that pressure really should’ve told. There were opportunities by the bucket load but lack of cutting edge was Celtic’s downfall.
The first half indicative of what Lennon has been trying to get from his team all season; an aggressive press, camping out in the opposition half and not letting our rivals breathe.
In fact, with less than 45 minutes gone, we had limited Rangers to their worst pass completion rate for the entire season. As performances go, it was night and day from our previous meetings with Rangers, and it was about time, too.
Then the sending-off changed everything. Celtic couldn’t continue with the same pace, a man down. From then, a goal seemed inevitable. Lennon’s side then reverted to type and the movement became ponderous.
Celtic couldn’t afford to aggressively press with a numbers deficit. It completely changed Neil Lennon’s approach to the game, and he can’t really be blamed for that.
It’s such a shame, such a wasted opportunity to make a real statement.
Hunger and desire
If Celtic were meek at home to Rangers, the desire on show at Ibrox was enormously refreshing. Ajer and Bitton were rock-solid in the middle during the first half. The Israeli international won everything in the air, with 4 aerial duels won, while Ajer was strong in the tackle (WhoScored?).
Laxalt and Frimpong were roving the wings and making exquisitely timed challenges. The Bhoys’ shape was a demonstration of tactical supremacy, but the tackling and willingness to drive forward was all heart.
If anything, Celtic looked just as dangerous off the ball as they did on it. With an aggressive pressing approach out of possession, there were multiple options for any Celtic player making the tackle.
Callum McGregor led by example, with motoring, energetic runs. All the first half needed was a goal or two; Allan McGregor’s acrobatic goalkeeping antics were the only reason the Bhoys weren’t ahead at half-time.
Then, with their first genuinely fruitful attack, Morelos got Nir Bitton sent off. The Israeli wasn’t the last man, but it was daft – a totally unnecessary rugby tackle.
Mentality had been so crucial going into this match, but when Callum McGregor’s messy own goal trickled beyond Barkas, Celtic’s whole demeanour changed. From being all over Rangers, the Bhoys gave their opposition far too much time and space to make things happen.
Jullien is more important to Celtic than we thought
Listen; Celtic need a centre back. With the news that Christopher Jullien could miss as much as 4 months out, it’s clear that Nir Bitton and Shane Duffy aren’t of the suitable calibre to replace him.
As ever this season, it’s a lesson that was learnt too late.
Jullien’s leadership, composure and aerial threat would’ve been so important in this match. Bitton won his aerial duels in the first half, yes, but it was his lack of familiarity with the position that showed here. His needless grab of Morelos played completely into Rangers’ hands.
Then, when Shane Duffy came on, he almost immediately got booked. He may have ‘Celtic man’ credentials but he’s just not good enough to play for the club.
It should never have got to this point.
The board and recruitment team should’ve known the importance of the 10, and having first-class centre backs available was and is absolutely crucial. Relying on a loan signing from Brighton and a central midfielder just hasn’t done it.