BERT KONTERMAN got the last laugh on the Celtic fans who sarcastically CHEERED his name as the team line-ups were read out over the Hampden tannoy as he became Rangers’ most unlikely hero with a superb winning goal in the Old Firm CIS Cup semi-final.
The much-malinged Dutchman fired a 30-yard thunderbolt into the roof of Robert Douglas’ net right at the end of the first half of extra time to end the Light Blues’ winless run in the derby fixture and give Alex McLeish a sweet victory in his first Old Firm encounter.
It was also a goal that spared Shota Arveladze’s blushes after the Georgian had blown a great chance to seal victory when he missed a penalty with less than 15 minutes left on the clock as the teams were deadlocked at 1-1.
Peter Lovenkarnds had given Rangers the lead on the stroke of half time with his second consecutive goal against Celtic, but that was cancelled out by Bobo Balde’s equaliser midway through the second half.
It looked as if the game was heading for penalty kicks until Konterman popped up with a sensational strike similar to his winning goal against Anzhi Makhachkala in the UEFA Cup earlier this season.
All the spirit and commitment Big Eck demanded from his players was on display at Hampden and his win against Celtic means no Rangers manager has lost their first game against the Parkhead men since John Greig 32 years ago. If you know your history, indeed.
The shock team news for Rangers before the game was McLeish’s decision to leave the club’s top marksman – with 23 goals in all competitions this season – Tore Andre Flo on the substitutes’ bench.
That meant the Ibrox side lined up in a 4-3-3 formation with Craig Moore and Lorenzo Amoruso the central defenders in front of Stefan Klos with Fernando Ricksen and Arthur Numan occupying the full-back roles.
Barry Ferguson and Konterman played the holding midfield roles, allowing Ronald de Boer to venture forward, and Claudio Caniggia, Arveladze and Lovenkrands were all in attack.
It didn’t start at all well for Gers and with barely 60 seconds on the clock Celtic were almost gifted the lead. Numan was short with a passback which John Hartson latched on to and only a great saving tackle from Amoruso stopped him putting the ball into an empty net.
It really was a backs-to-the-wall job for Rangers in the early part. And in the seventh minute Alan Thompson played a long ball over the head of Amoruso, Henrik Larsson was straight through on goal but his shot took a slight deflection off the inside of Klos’ leg and trickled past the post.
But from the resulting corner the Gers rearguard was put under an enormous amount of pressure as Celtic rifled in a succession of shots but somehow they managed to scramble the ball clear, with Klos pulling off a couple of fine saves.
Rangers had, however, come close just before that. De Boer, of whom big things were expected after his rest against Dundee on Saturday, did well on the left before crossing to Arveladze and his header went just wide of Rab Douglas’ post.
Big Eck’s side managed to weather the storm but only just, and they still seemed to be second to every ball. The next real chance came five minutes before the break when Agathe cantered past Amoruso before floating in a ball to Larsson but the Swede’s header was just wide.
But Rangers responded almost immediately and, in fact, had one of the best chances of the first half. Caniggia chipped a pass into Arveldaze who cut in from the left with only Douglas to beat but the Celtic ‘keeper dived at the Georgian’s feet and grabbed the ball.
The Light Blues sensationally grabbed the lead against the run of play right on the stroke of half time. Rangers had been awarded a free kick after Balde went crashing into the back of De Boer as he challenged for a header.
The free-kick itself wasn’t a good one, Ricksen hit it off the wall but as the ball bobbled in the air, Arveladze knocked it into the path of the on-rushing Lovenkrands and he kept his cool to slot past Douglas.
He was the only player to have scored against Celtic before this match and he was delighted with his effort, which will have done his World Cup dream no harm at all, and he celebrated with a spectacular somersault.
That goal helped Rangers exorcise the ghosts which have haunted them in the last five derby fixtures and after the re-start they had a much more confident look about them and took the game to Celtic.
It took 51 minutes for referee Kenny Clark to show a yellow card – and then two came at once. Neil Lennon was cautioned for a wreckless challenge on Ricksen, and Ferguson followed him into the book for complaining about the studs-up tackle. Four minutes later Arveladze was booked for a foul on Agathe.
McLeish then changed things about, bringing De Boer – who suffered a head knock – off and replacing him with £12 million man Flo. And shortly after that he had to make another substitute – and again it was enforced.
Larsson and Moore chased a ball and the result was a collision between the Rangers defender and his goalkeeper. The Aussie had to be stretchered off, to be replaced by his fellow countryman Tony Vidmar.
That was a crushing blow to McLeish with Moore such a vital part of his team and Rangers started to come under a barrage or relentless Celtic pressure. They managed to hold firm, but finally conceded 17 minutes from the end.
Alan Thompson floated in a corner from the right-hand side deep into the back post where everyone in a packed penalty area seemed to miss it. Mjallby knocked it towards goal and Balde was first to react and knock it home.
But three minutes later Rangers were thrown a lifeline and a great opportunity to get their noses in front. Referee Clark awarded the Light Blues a penalty after Balde had felled Lovenkrands but Arveladze squandered the opportunity, hitting his spot-kick off the crossbar.
It was a golden chance to kill the game and book their place in the Final but in the end it was extra time and both managers gathered their players for a nerve-jangling 30 minutes which would win the game.
And it was Rangers who started the brighter of the two sides, Ferguson going close with a shot just past the post and then Numan doing the same before Konterman picked up the ball and lashed it home.
The Light Blue legions chanted his name from the stands making him a rarity in Old Firm games – a player who has been cheered by BOTH sets of fans. The win keeps Rangers’ hopes of completing their own unique trio of trophies, while ending any thoughts Martin O’Neill had of completing back-to-back domestic Trebles.
RANGERS: Klos, Ricksen, Moore (Vidmar), Amoruso, Numan, Konterman, Ferguson, De Boer (Flo), Caniggia, Arveladze (Hughes), Lovenkrands Subs (not used): McGregor (GK), McCann
CELTIC: Douglas, Lambert (Moravcik), Agathe, Hartson (Sutton), Valgaeren, Balde, Larsson, Thompson, Lennon, Petrov (Petta), Mjallby Subs (not used): Crainey, Gould (Gk)
Bookings: Rangers – Ferguson (51), Arveladze (55) Konerman (70) Klos (73), Caniggia (80) Numan (90); Celtic – Lennon (51), Balde (98), (Larsson 108), (Sutton 110)
Referee: Kenny Clark
Man of the Match: Barry Ferguson – after questions being asked about his ability to captain Rangers, the midfielder led by example. But it could have been anyone in Light Blue on the night – they were all heroes.
Moment of the Match: It has to be that strike from Bert Konterman – and who could deny him it after the turbulent time he’s endured since crossing the North Sea?