Sunday morning, the build-up to a mouth-watering Old Firm derby almost at a climax, plenty believed – myself included – this could be Rangers’ opportunity to strike a psychological blow to Celtic’s iron grip on the Scottish Premiership title.
Both sides had begun the season well domestically, but Celtic’s Champions League exit to Cluj had led to supporters and pundits questioning Neil Lennon’s credentials to lead the club to the hallowed ninth and 10th consecutive league titles.
Steven Gerrard’s Rangers looked to have sharpened up defensively from last season and, having safely negotiated their way to the Europa League group stage, were high in confidence going into a fixture they had comfortably won at home in the previous campaign.
Fast forward to full-time at Ibrox and the narrative had changed dramatically.
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Celtic had bullied the challengers, suffocating their midfield, starving their attack of supply and carving open their defence with ruthless precision.
Neil Lennon whooped with joy down the lens of the television camera as the final whistle sounded and then vented his disdain for those who had questioned his and his players’ perceived shortcomings.
And why not? With this display, he had earned the right to let off some steam.
Underdogs to swaggering muscle flexers
Lennon’s position is a curious one. Supporters love him for all that he has done for Celtic as a player and a manager and yet many questioned his reappointment and howled their disapproval as the club crashed out of the Champions League qualifiers for a second successive season.
Sunday’s victory may have brought some of those doubters back on board, but either way, the Celtic boss will go into the international break quietly satisfied with the opening couple of months of the season – Cluj notwithstanding.
His side went to Ibrox in the unusual position of underdogs as far as the bookmakers were concerned, but from kick-off they swaggered around the pitch with a belief that this would be their day.
Early in the first half, the cameras zoomed in on the Celtic captain, Scott Brown, playing his 37th Old Firm game, flexing his muscles, bellowing at those around him, clearly revelling in the role of chief antagonist.
Ibrox was the scene of two of Brown’s poorest performances last season, but on Sunday, he rose to the occasion, leading by example as he snapped into tackles, broke up play and drove his team forward. There was no-one in a Rangers jersey who did the same.
A glance at the Celtic team-sheet beforehand might have given Rangers fans an even greater sense of optimism.
Hatem Elhamed was pitched in at right-back despite his manager saying he had a hairline fracture in his side, Nir Bitton was again used as an auxiliary centre-half alongside Christopher Jullien on his Old Firm debut and, at left-back, Boli Bolingoli took his place despite an uneasy start to his Celtic career.
But that quartet repelled everything Rangers threw at them, which in truth was not much.
Rangers fall flat on and off pitch
Indeed, Rangers’ own team-sheet might have been similarly reassuring for Celtic supporters. No Alfredo Morelos, no Sheyi Ojo or Jordan Jones. Instead, Jermain Defoe got the nod up front and Joe Aribo – so impressive in the Rangers midfield this season – was asked to play further forward as Glen Kamara came into a conservative-looking middle three.
Aribo looked lost. He was beaten in a 50-50, which may have been more like 60-40 in Aribo’s favour, by Brown in the first half, typifying the balance of power in the middle of the park.
Kamara, who had taken Brown to the cleaners last time out, has not started the season well and his performance on Sunday was in keeping with that before being hooked at half-time for Ojo.
Gerrard said pre-match that he had gone for Defoe over Morelos because the Englishman was fresher after the shift the Colombian put in against Legia Warsaw on Thursday. Realistically, it did not matter a jot who was up front as there was little or no service for the lone striker, with most of the Englishman’s work done outside the box to little effect.
The Rangers manager held his hands up afterwards, admitting he would have to take his share of the blame for the first defeat of the season.
He is still a relative novice in the managerial game and will clearly make mistakes as he learns his trade, but even this early in the season, those mistakes on Sunday look costly.
Celtic dent genuine Rangers optimism
Instead of a psychological blow being struck against Celtic, the opposite is true. Rangers again find themselves trailing their powerful rivals, albeit Gerrard made the point they are four points better off now than they were this time last year.
But this was a huge opportunity missed by Rangers. A chance to go into the international break ahead of Celtic in the league for the first time since re-entering the top flight. Only by three points perhaps, but the pressure on and criticism of the defending champions would have grown while Rangers’ momentum continued to mount.
They may not be back to square one, but a genuine optimism that they could be title challengers this season has taken a big dent.
It is up to them to show their mettle when league business resumes on 14 September to ensure they stay on their city rivals’ coat-tails until they get a chance to avenge that defeat when they visit Celtic Park at the end of December.
The champions were without Kristoffer Ajer and Tom Rogic, Olivier Ntcham was only required for a second-half cameo in place of the unusually quiet James Forrest (credit to Jon Flanagan), Leigh Griffiths was not required from the bench and they still have Mohamed Elyounoussi and possibly Greg Taylor to come in.
Lennon said Celtic sent out a message to Scottish football with Sunday’s win. The message: “Catch us if you can.”