Crisis? What crisis? A 2-1 win over their city rivals, and closest title challengers, has gone a long way to dispelling suggestions of a winter of discontent at Celtic Park.
For Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers, suggestions of “constant crisis mode” in the east end of Glasgow were exaggerated in the lead up to the latest Old Firm derby.
And little wonder given his side’s 2-1 victory moves them eight points clear at the top of the Scottish Premiership, albeit having played two games more.
Perhaps that, in part, is why a first defeat in 17 games as a Rangers manager did nothing to alter “proud” Philippe Clement’s belief that his side are continuing to improve and can still mount a title challenge.
However, he pointed to two moments either side of half time that have shifted the momentum again in the Scottish title race.
‘Very satisfying, fantastic win’
Going into Saturday’s game, much had been made of the way Rangers had narrowed the gap at the top.
Winning the Viaplay Cup final and reaching the last 16 of the Europa League had coincided with a couple of uncharacteristic domestic stumbles across Glasgow, heightened by an exit from the Champions League and a dispute with a section of their own supporters.
But with the Green Brigade now back in the fold as 60,000 at Celtic Park witnessed their second Old Firm win of the season, Rodgers was able to proclaim: “There’s a lot of noise around us. I sensed that everyone feels we are in constant crisis mode here at Celtic, but I don’t feel that.”
Instead, the Northern Irishman could point to a “very satisfying” and “fantastic win”, achieved while being able to give cameos to two returning key players from injury – Liel Abada and Reo Hatate.
“A brilliant day for the supporters and they really pushed the team on,” Rodgers said. “At the end of December, these can be challenging games – a lot of fatigue, plus we had played in midweek and Rangers had the free week to prepare.
“I thought it was deserved, we scored two outstanding goals and had other opportunities and maybe didn’t pick the right pass. The only downside was when they went down to 10. We didn’t control the game enough and we invited pressure.”
The opener came from a fine Paulo Bernardo volley, the on-loan Benfica midfielder’s second in two games, and that was followed by what his manager described as “a wonderful strike” from Kyogo Furuhashi.
Rodgers pointed out that Celtic still have St Mirren to visit on Tuesday before they can settle into the winter break with a significant gap at the top, but he is already looking forward to strengthening further during the transfer window.
“I know the players and, for me, there’s still so much improvement to make and players to come back who will make us better,” he said. “We hope we can improve the squad as well.”
‘Explanation a way to cover wrong decision’
It is not often that a defeated manager can walk away from an Old Firm derby stressing the positives, but Clement thought there were plenty.
Celtic’s dominance of 56% possession was balanced by the fact that Rangers edged the efforts on goal by 14 to 12, although the hosts had two more on target than the Ibrox side’s three.
That several of those Rangers chances came after they had centre-back Leon Balogun sent off when already 2-0 down gave Clement the chance to claim it as another example of the side’s improvement since he replaced Michael Beale.
“With 10, to keep on going and still creating chances, you could sense there was nervousness around the stadium,” the Belgian said.
“We see this team growing week to week. If my team keeps this mentality and braveness on the ball, we are going to take a lot of points this season. I see a team and squad that is getting better and better.”
For Clement, the result hinged on two “details” – the denial of a penalty when the ball appeared to strike the hand of Celtic right-back Alistair Johnston shortly before the break, followed by Kyogo’s strike just after.
“It was a game that could have been a draw,” he said. “It was a game that we could have won. We had more shots than Celtic in an away game and without any fans behind us.
“My team showed braveness on the ball and created chances. Celtic was more clinical and the second goal is world class and that doesn’t happen every week.”
Clement disputed the suggestion that the handball had been made null and void by Rangers forward Abdallah Sima being offside as the cross came into the Celtic penalty box.
“It is strange that we did not get this information until the second half,” he said. “It is an explanation afterwards to cover a decision that was wrong. It is a clear handball, so it is a penalty.”
‘One moment of genius’
BBC pundit Pat Nevin agreed that both managers could take some positivity from “another cracker” of an Old Firm derby in which each goal was worthy of being a match winner.
“They really needed it, Celtic,” he told BBC Radio 5Live. “They were under huge pressure if Rangers had won this game with the games they have in hand.
“However, over the piece, Celtic have probably been the better side. A number of things went in their favour, but those two goals that they scored were brilliant quality goals.”
Nevin thought Rangers being denied “a penalty that most people seem to think was a penalty” and Kyogo’s “unstoppable” strike were the pivotal moments.
“Brendan Rodgers will be relieved as much as anything else, but on the other side of it, Clement will be thinking ‘I’ve got something to work with here’,” he added.
“They got close in the end after being second best by some distance. But it will all come down to what happened just before half time and what happened just after half time.
“That one moment of genius from Kyogo was worth coming along for.”