THIS is in danger of becoming habit-forming. After waiting 20 months for an Old Firm win, Rangers picked up their second in the space of just 10 days following an explosive match that saw Alan Thompson and Chris Sutton both pick up red cards for the visitors.
By the time Thompson was dismissed after 38 minutes for a petulant swipe at Peter Lovenkrands, Rangers were already two goals up – Nacho Novo and Dado Prso were again the scorers – and never looked like relinquishing that lead thereafter.
Almost forgotten among all the mayhem was the fact that the victory – the first for Alex McLeish and his men against Celtic in the league for almost exactly two years – propelled Rangers closer to their rivals with the gap between the sides at the top of the table now standing at a solitary point.
Anyone thinking the early kick-off and the freezing temperature would dilute the frenzy that surrounds these occasions would – not surprisingly – soon be proved wrong.
Within 30 seconds Novo had fashioned a half-chance before the match settled into the scrappy midfield battle that has become the norm for this fixture in recent times.
If anything it was Celtic who looked less sluggish in the opening period and twice within a minute John Hartson threatened the Rangers goal with a header off the post and then a fierce low drive that beat Stefan Klos at his near post.
On both occasions, however, an earlier infringement brought a premature end to any celebration although for controversial talking points it would soon be overshadowed by what followed in the remainder of a stormy first half that threatened to explode out of control.
After the SFA’s decision to rescind the red card that would have kept him out of this game, there seemed something almost predestined that Novo would have an important role to play after his late reprieve.
The Spaniard’s date with destiny duly materialised after 14 minutes. A hopeful Zurab Khizanishvili cross was nodded out by Bobo Balde only as far as Hamed Namouchi and when he threaded a pass through to Novo, the former Dundee man skipped into the box and was brought down by Joos Valgaeren.
Novo sprung to his feet, gathered the ball and calmly side-footed the resulting penalty kick past Magnus Hedman to give Rangers the lead.
Celtic briefly threatened again – Henri Camara headed a Stilian Petrov free kick over and Stanislav Varga did likewise from a corner – before Rangers added to their lead after 35 minutes.
Sutton – a man who had apparently seemed invisible to referees in previous Old Firm encounters – was finally booked for a late challenge on Alex Rae.
Fernando Ricksen delivered the free kick to the back post where Prso rose to glide a header across Hedman and into the far corner of the net.
Sutton’s foul play had cost his side a goal and he would receive his own personal punishment later in the game as well when he was sent off for a second booking.
He was not, however, the first Celtic player, to see red.That “honour” instead belonged to Alan Thompson who was dismissed seven minutes before the interval after taking umbrage with Peter Lovenkrands’ foul on Jackie McNamara and handed out his own form of personal revenge on the Dane.
As Thompson made the long walk up the tunnel, repercussions were being dealt out – Hedman found it necessary to run 60 yards to join the shoving match – and ended with Neil Lennon and Alex Rae collecting bookings.
At this stage, ref Kenny Clark could have been forgiven for wondering if he had brought enough pencils and a big enough pad with him and would have been wishing for a pair of eyes in the back of his head as well.
There could – and should – have been another red card before the end of a turbulent first half.
Camara had already been booked for a slap at Rae and should have walked when he seemed to thud his studs into Gregory Vignal’s chest as the pair contested a ball wide on the touchline.
Assistant Stewart Shearer was only yards from the incident and yet chose not to intervene. Novo in particular would have appreciated the irony of the situation given events at Easter Road the previous week.
Perhaps fortunate to have survived, Camara was taken off at the break to be replaced by Stephen Pearson but it was Rangers who threatened first with Hedman doing well to claw away a Prso header just two minutes after the re-start.
Any chances of a Celtic comeback were killed stone dead after 54 minutes when Sutton picked up a second booking for deliberate handball, much to the delight of the home supporters packed inside Ibrox.
The pace of the game visibly dropped after that as Rangers looked content to sit on their lead and nine-man Celtic seemingly unable to find their way back into the match, aside from a Petrov shot well held by Stefan Klos.
Rangers had chances to add to their lead. Prso headed narrowly over after connecting well with a Zurab cross and then saw Hedman pull off a great block to keep out the Croatian’s fierce drive.
The crowd hollered for more goals but McLeish’s men were content to play out time to pick up a valuable three points.
RANGERS (4-4-2): 1 Klos; 15 Khizanishvili (Malcolm 71), 4 Boumsong, 5 Andrews, 24 Vignal (Ball 58); 31 Namouchi, 2 Ricksen, 8 Rae, 26 Lovenkrands (Arveladze 46); 10 Novo, 10 Prso
Subs not used: Smith, Hutton, Thompson, Mackenzie
Booked: Lovenkrands (37), Rae (39), Khizanishvili (70)
CELTIC (4-4-2): 21 Hedman; 5 Valgaeren, 6 Balde, 23 Varga, 4 McNamara; 19 Petrov (McGeady 78), 18 Lennon, 9 Sutton, 8 Thompson; 27 Camara (Pearson 46), 10 Hartson
Subs not used: Marshall, Juninho. Lambert, Wallace, Lanson
Booked: Camara (32), Sutton (34), Lennon (39), McNamara (85)
Sent Off: Thompson (38), Sutton (54)
Man of the Match: Nacho Novo