Looking to put a real bite into Hearts’ lead in the race for the second Champions League place, Alex McLeish’s men instead had to settle for a goalless draw – the first in this fixture in eight years – that reduces the gap to four points but keeps Hearts firmly in the driving seat with just three games to go.
In his final Old Firm match, McLeish will look back on three glorious chances created and missed by his team early in the second-half that could have swung the tie in Rangers’ favour.
If the Light Blues had needed any further motivation heading into this clash – and frankly it was unlikely – it came in the form of Hearts’ defeat to Hibs the previous day that helped add a further twist in the race for second spot.
Not that McLeish would have expected any favours from Celtic who, despite being crowned champions several weeks earlier, thundered into every challenge and contested every duel as if their lives depended on it.
Rangers, ironically, will now hope Gordon Strachan’s men can defeat Hearts when they travel to Tynecastle next weekend to keep alive their Champions League dreams for next season.
It had only been a matter of time before the seemingly indefatigable Barry Ferguson would eventually have to succumb to the niggling ankle problem that has plagued him in recent months and unfortunately for his manager that time finally came ahead of this high-pressure contest.
Ferguson’s absence opened up a gap in midfield, one that was filled by Gavin Rae making his first start since April 2004. Not blessed with natural pace and still lacking match sharpness, Rae performed admirably in his defensive duties without being able to make the sort of penetrative runs that could have caused Celtic further problems in the key areas of the field.
Kris Boyd started looking for his first ever goal against Celtic but was often an isolated figure in attack with Dado Prso asked again to perform wide left and Thomas Buffel’s threat largely negated by the snarling presence of Roy Keane.
When Boyd finally escaped the attentions of twin markers Stan Varga and Stephen McManus towards the end of the first half he could only tamely head Chris Burke’s corner wide. Moments later he did have the ball in the net – finishing adroitly past Artur Boruc – only for the referee’s assistant to rule it out for offside. It was marginal but probably the correct decision.
In a scrappy match of little aesthetic value, the two best chances of the first half both fell to Celtic in the space of two minutes.
Shaun Maloney was at the heart of both, first spearing in a free kick that Ronald Waterreus did remarkably well to swat away before Maloney played in Maciej Zurawski with a penetrating pass that sent the Pole running free into the penalty box. Again Waterreus came to Rangers’ rescue, standing up well to block Zurawski’s stab on target.
After a rather lacklustre opening half Rangers remarkably could have been three up within five minutes of the re-start but unforgivably squandered every opportunity.
The worst miss of the three undoubtedly belonged to Burke, the winger somehow blazing an effort high over the crossbar from around eight yards after Prso’s dogged persistence had earned him the space to fizz an inviting pass right into Burke’s pass.
It was, undeniably, a total sitter but Rangers continued to press forward in search of the breakthrough.
Boruc saved acrobatically from Prso – touching the Croatian’s header onto a post – before Boyd was wasteful from the resulting corner, heading over from right underneath the crossbar.
Not many teams can come to an inhospitable venue such as this and afford to be so profligate, even against what is undoubtedly one of the poorest Celtic teams in recent memory, and Gordon Strachan’s side, grateful for the let-off, responded through testing strikes from the impressive Maloney and then substitute Shunsuke Nakamura, both attempts well snuffed out by Waterreus.
Rangers, losing momentum by the second, were then almost undone by Stilian Petrov’s pass that sent John Hartson through only for the out-rushing Waterreus to again save the jerseys.
It helped earn Rangers a draw but a point in these circumstances is surely not enough.
CELTIC (4-4-2): 1 Boruc; 2 Telfer, 23 Varga, 44 McManus, 12 Wilson; 19 Petrov, 18 Lennon, 16 Keane (Nakamura 61), 29 Maloney (McGeady 81); 7 Zurawski, 10 Hartson (Dublin 84)
Subs not used: Marshall, Thompson, Pearson, Wallace
Booked: Lennon (39), McManus (65)
RANGERS (4-4-2): 25 Waterreus; 20 Hutton, 14 Kyrgiakos, 16 Rodriguez, 34 Smith; 17 Burke (Ashikodi 90), 7 Hemdani, 11 G Rae, 9 Prso; 15 Boyd (Novo 70), 4 Buffel
Subs not used: Klos, Andrews, Malcolm, A Rae, Murray
Booked: Kyrgiakos (56), Novo (77)