Against an Ibrox side that had spent the past few weeks building up their chances and galvanising each other for the encounter, the Scottish champions found themselves a goal down after just three minutes. And it was all Rodgers’ fault.
Due to a series of injuries and suspensions over the past few months, the Celtic manager opted to play a simple back four. Yet that involved moving rising star Kristoffer Ajer out to the right flank to make space for the returning Dedryck Boyata.
Boyata, renowned for his ability to lose all sense of composure in high-pressure situations, wasted little time reminding Celtic fans what they had missed in his absence. A heavy touch allowed Josh Windass to intercept the ball, run free on goal and fire into the roof of the Celtic net.
Despite an exquisite equaliser from Tom Rogic just eight minutes after Windass’ opening goal, Celtic’s makeshift defence was once again punished by Graeme Murty’s quick, direct and dangerous front line. A lofted through ball to Declan John exposed the disorientated Ajer on the right, before a cross found Boyata scrambling to the front post to deal with Alfredo Morelos.
The Colombian effortlessly nudged the Celtic defender out of the way and allowed the free ball to bounce across Scott Bain’s box before Daniel Candeias fired home at the back post. Rodgers’ defence were on the ropes and at fault for two goals in the opening 26 minutes of the game.
A fortunate loft up the park from Scott Brown on the eve of half time found Moussa Dembele in behind Rangers’ defence, where the French striker calmly slotted home an equaliser. Yet, bizarrely, it wasn’t until Celtic got a man sent off that things truly swung in their favour.
When Jozo Simunovic was deemed to have elbowed Morelos in the face in the 57th minute, Rodgers was forced to make a tactical shift. He hooked the wandering No.10, Rogic, for central defender Jack Hendry and then took off winger James Forrest for Odsonne Edouard.
This moved Celtic to a defensive, counter-attacking system and a 4-3-2 to replace the open and rather limited 4-5-1 that they had started the game with.
This did two things. Firstly it pushed Celtic’s defensive line back and forced Rangers to go from long, direct balls to short, accurate passing between the lines. And secondly, it allowed Celtic to get the ball to Brown, Olivier Ntcham or Callum McGregor in midfield and then on to the pacy, direct pairing of Dembele and Edouard. It worked wonders immediately.
Two minutes after Edouard walked on to the pitch Celtic won the ball deep in their own half. Brown passed to Ntcham, who laid it to McGregor. The Scottish international dribbled briefly before finding Dembele, who swung a wonderful through ball in to the path of the aforementioned substitute on the edge of the Rangers box. Within four passes in ten seconds, Celtic had a striker in the opponent’s box who curled the ball into the net.
If Rodgers’ quick thinking and tactical jiggery was masterful then it was matched only by Murty’s complete and utter inaction. In the 12 minutes between Simunovic’s red card and Celtic’s third goal the Rangers manager didn’t change a single thing.
And although Morelos had a wonderful chance just before the match-winner from Edouard, it was clear Rangers were struggling to impose their numerical advantage on the champions.
It wasn’t until a full five minutes after the goal, and with just 15 minutes left, that Murty elected to bring on Jason Cummings – a striker that had scored five goals in 10 games before Sunday’s showdown – in an attempt to wrestle back control of the match.
Although the Rangers coach wasn’t blessed with the same strength in depth as Rodgers, he did have two further forwards on his bench in Kenny Miller and Eduardo Herrera, as well as a central midfielder in Jason Holt that has proved himself as a useful playmaker this season.
The fact Rangers finished the match with four defenders on the park and an unused sub truly suggests more could have been done to squeeze Celtic and push for an equaliser in the last 20 minutes of the game.
Ultimately the match would come down to a Morelos miss just yards off the Celtic goal line in the dying moments of the game. The striker that had ran himself into the ground and played a huge part in Rangers’ second goal would be made a scapegoat, but in truth it was Murty’s inaction and inability to handle Celtic’s change in formation and system that lost them the game.
Murty has done an excellent job in his brief spell at Ibrox and deserves to have his stay extended when his side most likely finishes in second place with points to spare.
Yet Sunday was a match that underlined his inexperience and the notably gulf in quality that still stands between him and his opposite number across Glasgow.