Celtic prove they are still too good for Rangers in League Cup thriller
This was not a Hampden showdown where the victors and vanquished could be easily predicted, despite Celtic’s pre-eminence in Scottish football under boss Ange Postecoglou – but the Parkhead club extracted what was needed to retain the Viaplay League Cup final on an absorbing day.
Celtic, in another impressive display of character, now move into the business end of the campaign, with the first available piece of silverware to hand. And in doing so, resisting – just about – the stern, if intermittent, challenge from Michael Beale’s Rangers, who remain an awkward work-in-progress.
Postecoglou’s Celts remain more savvy on these ultimate junctures, repelling an element of flurry from their great rivals. Consequently, the satisfaction the Greek-Australian must feel as he now targets a domestic treble must be particularly immense. This is the 21st time Celtic have tasted glory in the competition: the zero-sum game in unseasonal sun.
There is seldom a scene of corrosive noise, colour, even scent, anywhere in world football like Glasgow’s south side when these two meet. The clash of respective cultures, with prominently-positioned blue and green ultras urgently scalding encouragement at each end.
If Rangers manager Beale talks a good game – much of it fascinating to listen to it must be said – then, arguably, the actual need for his team to prevail yesterday was more urgent, more desperate. Now there is a requirement to explain how Rangers fell short. As a coach trying to impress and establish his credentials at a club which has not won the League Cup since 2011, the challenge to break the searing ‘We Never Stop’ style hegemony virtually institutionalised by Postecoglou, remains invasive in the thoughts of all at Ibrox.
Most sensible elements of the Rangers support, for all their hope, remain more circumspect than their coltish winger, Fashion Sakala, who claimed they are a better team than Celtic, irrespective of a current nine-point gap in the Premiership.
At their showy best, there isn’t so much a clash of styles with both teams capable of attractive play, and the vastness of the Hampden surface suited many, theoretically, on both sides. Ryan Kent and Jota, those ebullient talents for Rangers and Celtic, respectively. Curiously, the opening period passed Alfredo Morelos, the striker whose moods appear to flicker with the wind, with Carl Starfelt so composed at the heart of the Celtic defence.
Daizen Maeda and current Celt-in-vogue Reo Hatate, were not at their vibrant best, but they buy into Postecoglou’s high energy philosophy. Kyogo Furuhashi, with a incredible percentage rate of 1.09 goals per ninety minutes played this term improved this irresistible statistic with a decisive double.
So much of the highly-sprung tightness of these meetings depends on the definitive final ball, and the coolness of execution.
However, Celtic seldom, if ever panic. Invariably, they draft a way.
The Light Blues’ inability to sufficiently heed a couple of earlier Kyogo warnings allowed the Japanese forward to tap home a couple of minutes before half-time.
Beale is noted for his ability to change matters mid-game - so now he had his opportunity. Kent striking the post - with Sakala missing the rebound - was one agonising moment in Rangers’ search to draw level. Such misfiring only served to moisturise growing anxiety from the Ibrox fans. On reflection, the slender, opportune, yet profligate moments the Gers must improve upon as Beale addresses the remainder of the season.
How Rangers were punished. The 55th minute intervention – another from close quarters – by Kyogo, reminded us that the sphere of ruthlessness required on these occasions, is Celtic’s key advantage and preserve as they are already almost guaranteed to retain the league title too.
Still, Morelos, hitherto marginal, provided hope for Rangers just beyond the hour, with Beale ringing three personnel changes to an outfit suddenly possessed of brio. Celtic’s resilience, other than the last drawn meeting against their ancient rivals, has been rarely tested in 2022-23 to date, but they were, admittedly, forced to answer some questioning in the latter stages.
This may not have been the vintage Celts that their fans have been accustomed to lately. It was however, ultimately, enough. As Hoops’ fans chanted Postecoglou’s name in the dying minutes, any sense of a pendulum swing in the Scottish game remains premature. Beale’s statement of intent as a boss remains elusive, as Rangers rue a sharp occasion where they know themselves that they simply didn’t do enough.
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