Celtic’s John Hartson and Johan Mjallby and Fernando Ricksen of Rangers were all sent packing by referee Kenny Clark two minutes from the end of what was surely a phoney war before the real thing at the Cup Final on May 4.
The mayhem ensued after Stefan Klos bravely clutched the ball just inches from his line after he had produced a match-saving block from Hartson’s header pushing it onto the bar.
Mjallby and other Celtic players kicked and flailed to try to force the ball over the line and Ricksen took exception, roughly pushing the Swedish defender. Mjallby reacted and then Hartson grabbed Bob Malcolm by the throat before he, perhaps inadvertently, bundled Clark into the back of the net.
The bizarre finale was remarkable in the sense that it looked as though a drawn game had been pre-ordered by the two sides, although both will feel they had the chances to win it.
Rangers missed theirs while Celtic were denied by Klos, who produced some outstanding saves, but there is little doubt that Alex McLeish’s patched-up side can take great heart from the result as they now prepare for the Tennent’s Scottish Cup Final.
McLeish knows his team is capable of much better and yet they did not lose and if he can bring back some of the injured players like Barry Ferguson, Craig Moore and Shota Arveladze then there is surely every chance of a great end to the season.
He got the perfect start with a goal in the first minute but lost an equaliser three minutes before half-time and overall he must be very pleased to maintain his unbeaten record in this fixture since taking over as Rangers manager.
As usual, Lorenzo Amoruso was a tower of strength at the back but did show signs of slackness in possession while some of Christian Nerlinger’s passing was excellent at times.
But it was Klos who was the real hero for Rangers, making brilliant blocks from Larsson and Thompson freekicks as well as the Hartson header in the dying moments.
There were just 71 seconds on the clock when Lovenkrands gave Rangers a stunning lead to the absolute delight of the supporters behind Rab Douglas’s goal and manager McLeish could scarcely have wished for a better start.
It was Christian Nerlinger who created the opportunity with his ball forward which was flicked on into the path of the young Dane who had found acres of space on the left side of the box.
Lovenkrands fired a left foot shot which took a deflection off of Mjallby and screamed into the right corner of the net.
It was his third Old Firm goal this season having scored at Parkhead earlier this season and also notched the opening goal in the CIS Cup semi-final at Hampden and he celebrated with a handstand behind the Celtic goal.
The amazing thing was that Lovenkrands might have had a hat-trick in the first half and Russell Latapy also should have scored as Rangers exposed Celtic ruthlessly on the breakaway.
However, there was no ruthlessness in the finishing of either the young Dane or the Caribbean midfielder and ultimately it proved costly.
Andrei Kanchelskis set up Lovenkrands in seven minutes after Latapy had sent him clear by Mjallby made a crucial blocking tackle. Then in 14 minutes Celtic were ripped apart when the same three players combined.
This time Lovenkrands had a clear sight of goal but pulled his shot wide and he knew it was a gold opportunity spurned.
Celtic had not learned, it seemed, as the young Dane as sent clear again by Nerlinger in 23 minutes but the excellent Stephen Crainey made a crucial tackle when it looked as though Lovenkrands would get away from him.
Klos did have to make a very smart save from Thomson’s low shot in four minutes and Celtic had a lot of the midfield play but Rangers looked much more dangerous up front and they missed another great chance in 35 minutes.
This it was Latapy who failed in front of goal when Kanchelskis played him and he pushed a shot past the right hand post as he tried to place it in the corner.
As anyone knows you cannot afford to miss chances like this in this game and Celtic made Rangers pay three minutes before half-time. Didier Agathe’s cross was won at the back post by Moravcik, then Hartson teed up Thomson who steeted a left foot shot into the net from close range.
Klos came in for some unjustified criticism over his positioning at freekicks in Rotterdam but he proved his doubters wrong twice in the second half.
Just three minutes in he brilliantly stopped Larsson’s stinging effort after Amoruso had brought down Hartson and then in 82 minutes he made an even better block from Thomson’s rocket shot in a similar area.
Thomson tried to follow up with the rebound but Amoruso was perfectly placed to block his shot and Rangers held firm.
The strange thing was that with de Boer introduced in the second half, Rangers had more of the game but the did not have anything like the chances they produced in the first half.
Overall a draw was probably fair and Rangers managed to stop Celtic achieving a 100 per cent home record in the SPL.
They will, of course, hope they can do more than that on May 4 when the two sides go head to head in a Cup Final showdown which will mean so much for both sides.
CELTIC: Douglas; Mjallby, Boyd, Crainey; Agathe, Lennon, Moravcik (Guppy 72), Lambert (Petrov 47), Thomson; Larsson, Hartson. Subs not used – Gould, Smith, McNamara.
Sent off: Mjallby (88), Hartson (88).
Bookings: Lambert (28), Boyd (37), Thompson (89)
RANGERS: Klos; Ross, Malcolm, Amoruso, Numan; Kanchelskis, Ricksen, Latapy (de Boer 61), Nerlinger; Flo (Mols 70), Lovenkrands. Subs not used – McGregor, Dodds, Dowie.
Sent off: Ricksen (88)
Bookings: Amoruso (77), Kanchelskis (82)
Ref: Kenny Clark.
Man of the match: Stefan Klos
Moment of the match: Lovenkrands’ sensational opener.