December was always likely to be a defining month in the unfolding contest between Celtic and Rangers for Scottish football supremacy and so it proved. It started with the former winning the Scottish League Cup final and ended with the latter edging the Scottish Premiership fixture, putting Steven Gerrard’s side in control of the title race for the first time this season (although Rangers still need to win their game in-hand to go top).
The results alone don’t quite provide a full picture of the shift in dynamic that occurred between the two Glasgow rivals in just one month. Rangers dominated both matches, only failing to win the first meeting at Hampden Park due to the wastefulness of Alfredo Morelos and the invincibility of Fraser Forster. Sunday’s result was a truer reflection of the game.
As is the nature of these fixtures, Neil Lennon’s decisions will now be picked over. They will be the subject of many radio phone-ins and newspaper columns. This particular post-mortem will be even more thorough than usual given that there will be a two-week winter break before Celtic’s next game. Serious questions will be asked of the Northern Irishman after his team’s last two performances against their closest rivals.
Lennon appeared to be in a state of denial after Sunday’s 2-1 defeat. “I didn’t think we deserved to lose the game,” he insisted in the post-match interview. “I didn’t think we deserved to win it either. In the throes of the game we were a little tentative at times, a little bit physically off it. We needed a little bit of oomph and we just lacked that today. There’s nothing to panic about. It’s thoroughly disappointing to lose our home record and to lose the last game of the year the way we’ve been playing, but it wasn’t our day. We had two of the line, we missed a penalty so on another day we could have had three or four ourselves.”
Celtic were fortunate to have such opportunities, though, such was the balance of play.
The Hoops were out-fought and out-played from start to finish. They were second to pretty much every ball and lacked control through the centre of the pitch. Lennon’s decision to leave Olivier Ntcham until the 68th minute warrants scrutiny.
The selection of Scott Brown, Ryan Christie and Callum McGregor in midfield was baffling given that the same trio had failed to control the Scottish League Cup final against Rangers just a few weeks previously. It was as if Lennon expected a different outcome despite employing the same strategy and approach.
Of course, context is key. Lennon has silenced many of his critics this season. Celtic may have been a better-coached team under Brendan Rodgers – certainly better drilled and organised (this was apparent in the loss to Rangers) – but Lennon has made them fun to watch. There’s a case to be made that the Hoops are now more potent in attack than they were at any stage last season. Celtic’s frontline has been liberated.
What’s more, Celtic have produced some of their best European displays for years this season, cruising through to the last 32 of the Europa League with impressive wins over Cluj, Lazio and Rennes, and were dominant in their 2-0 win over Rangers at Ibrox in the first Old Firm derby of the season.
Until Rangers play their game in-hand, Celtic remain top of the Scottish Premiership table, but the inferiority complex that afflicted their rivals for so long now looks to have been eliminated. Now, the complex may well have shifted from one team to the other. On the basis of the last two Old Firm derbies, Lennon has himself a Rangers problem.