Trailing by 16 points in the league and knocked out of the CIS Cup by Hibs, the Scottish Cup was last-chance saloon for Rangers in their bid to salvage some silverware this season but Celtic again proved too strong and too well-organised for Alex McLeish’s men.
As has so often been the case, Henrik Larsson was the man who broke Rangers’ hearts with the only goal of the game to seal Celtic’s passage through to the `semi-finals.
McLeish will now take his side through to Tynecastle next weekend to start what has now become a very long pre-season for him and his squad as they try to salvage some pride and start some early preparations for next season.
In his pre-match press conference on Friday, McLeish had threatened to make wholesale changes to his starting line-up following the disappointing defeat at Tannadice the week previously and here he was true to his word.
The freshly shorn Stephen Hughes, Gavin Rae, Shota Arveladze and Peter Lovenkrands were all drafted in as was Henning Berg, despite his verbal outburst earlier in the week with Emerson, Nuno Capucho and Christian Nerlinger all excused from duty.
The reshuffle saw Rangers shift to a three-man defence to combat the threat of Larsson who – in the absence of the injured Chris Sutton and John Hartson – patrolled a lone beat up front, with Stilian Petrov and Stephen Pearson supporting from midfield.
Against a side that hadn’t lost at home for 72 matches, McLeish’s caution was understandable and Rangers more than held their own in what was – given the occasion and what was at stake – a surprisingly low-key opening period.
With Lovenkrands and Arveladze struggling to compete in a mismatched aerial battle with Bobo Balde and Stan Varga, chances for McLeish’s men were at a premium.
Rae – on his first start since the last trip to Celtic Park – dragged a snapshot wide from a Mikel Arteta corner before Varga was quick to react to block a Hughes effort following Frank de Boer’s driving run into the box.
Arteta hobbled off with a shoulder injury not long after the half-hour mark – Ronald de Boer came on in his place – and Rangers spent the remainder of the first half on the back foot as Celtic upped the pace.
Pearson saw his goal-bound drive well blocked by Berg – Larsson rifled the rebound well over the crossbar – before the Swede clipped the post with a header from Petrov’s inswinging corner.
Without his usual strike partners, Larsson had been unusually subdued but he was to once again stamp his mark over an Old Firm game when he shot Celtic in front eight minutes after the re-start.
Alan Thompson’s free kick fell to the feet of Pearson and, after his initial shot was blocked, Larsson was first to react to send the ball beyond Stefan Klos.
After Rae had thumped another effort over Rab Douglas’ bar after good work by first Lovenkrands and then Arveladze, Rangers belatedly introduced a physical presence into their attack when Steven Thompson replaced his namesake Hughes just after the hour mark.
The change made little difference, however, with Celtic continuing to look the side more likely to score.
Only a fabulous block by Klos denied Craig Beattie after Neil Lennon had robbed the dithering Ronald de Boer before Alan Thompson headed straight into the arms of the grateful goalkeeper as the clock ticked down.
Rangers finally notched up their first shot on target in the final minute – Michael Ball’s effort was well clutched by Douglas – before Rae dragged a tame effort wide of goal after great work by Thompson and Arveladze.
It was all a case of too little too late as Rangers’ season ended at the home of their oldest rivals.
CELTIC (4-4-1-1): 20 Douglas; 4 McNamara, 6 Balde, 23 Varga, 5 Valgaeren (Kennedy 80); 17 Agathe, 18 Lennon, 11 Pearson (Beattie 57 (Sylla 90)), 8 Thompson; 19 Petrov; 7 Larsson
Subs not used: Marshall, Lambert
Booked: Balde (29)
RANGERS (3-5-2): 1 Klos; 5 F de Boer, 25 Berg, 3 Moore; 2 Ricksen, 23 Arteta (R de Boer 36), 27 Hughes (Thompson 65), 11 Rae, 18 Ball; 7 Arveladze, 26 Lovenkrands
Subs not used: McGregor, Khizanishvili, Ross
Booked: Ricksen (29), Klos (58)