18 December 2006
RANGERS 1 CELTIC 1
PAUL LE GUEN survives. His future in Scotland might still look almost as thin as his hair but yesterday's draw against Celtic will have bought him extra time, if not the belief of the Rangers fans.
At the end of another thundering 90 minutes of football Old Firm style, nothing much had really changed between Celtic and Rangers. The Parkhead side are still 16 points in front and certain SPL champions while Rangers continue to improve slowly but surely.
They fell behind close to half-time when the snarling Thomas Gravesen scored the 300th SPL goal of the season - and it was a belter, although keeper Allan McGregor blundered when he waved his arms at the cross ball - but refused to accept to defeat.
Driven by Barry Ferguson, who played a true captain's role but missed a sitter - even if Le Guen might dispute this, given that he prefers to underplay the influence of the man who wears the armband - the Ibrox side recovered from a slow and sluggish start to this season's second Old Firm encounter. In the second half, they were slicker and more determined and their late equaliser was no more than they deserved.
Brahim Hemdani, back at the heart of Rangers' defence, sloped forward two minutes from the end and whacked the ball into Artur Boruc's net.
The shot did take a deflection off Gravesen but the goal was due and although Le Guen would have been relieved not to lose the game on his home patch, he could also consider himself unlucky not to have seen his side win.
And that assessment also allows for referee Kenny Clark's error that denied Celtic a penalty only minutes after Gravesen's goal. Steven Smith tripped Neil Lennon as he made his way to the byeline and probably every one of the 50,418 fans expected to see a penalty awarded.
Clark, however, saw nothing untoward but it will be a long time before Celtic can rid themselves of the belief that they were robbed.
After the game Gordon Strachan pointed out his side have not had a penalty in 19 matches. Not sure about their other claims, but yesterday they should have had the chance to score from the spot.
Then again, perhaps Clark assumed Celtic would have squandered their award. This referee had given two penalties to the Parkhead side in previous Old Firm games only to see Henrik Larsson and John Hartson miss them.
Rangers, though, might counter by pointing out that Boruc made several wonderful saves, the best of them after 17 minutes when he defied gravity, the laws of physics and Nacho Novo to get a finger to his goal-bound shot.
Boruc followed that up by making a few more in the second half as Rangers pushed and played for their equaliser.
Bringing a determination laced with decent football, a mix that has been too often missing from their make-up this season, into play, they kept Celtic at bay in the second half while manufacturing chances and testing not only Boruc but also Stephen McManus, who was back in Celtic's defence alongside Bobo Balde.
Like his keeper, McManus also had a big game but even so Rangers didn't fancy making it six matches against Celtic without scoring.
As expected, Le Guen brought b ack the players he had rested against Partizan Belgrade and, sticking with a 4-4-2 formation, Rangers looked more confident and much more capable.
And it wasn't as though Celtic had gone to Ibrox to stroll around because of their 16-point lead over Rangers. Strachan's lot wanted to get away with a win and, with the likes of Lennon in the side, defeat or a draw is never an option. Comfort zones are for others, not for him. His pride wouldn't allow him to settle.
Celtic fans might have been surprised to discover there was no starting place for Kenny Miller - he got on as a second-half substitute for Jiri Jarosik - but perhaps not when you consider that Hib s defender Shelton Martis has scored more goals this season.
Martis' three have been own goals but he is still more prolific in the league than the Scotland international.
It was a small miracle the players heard the first whistle above the din that had built up around the packed stadium.
When the game did get going, it was Aiden McGeady who caught the eye first as he skinned Hemdani on Celtic's left and then danced away from Alan Hutton.
Then Mark Wilson's cross from the opposite flank had to be headed away by Hutton just as Jarosik was about to snap his neck forward to make contact.
Rangers forced their first corner in 12 minutes but it was dealt with efficiently by Celtic's defence, although they were spooked four minutes later when Novo staggered rather than pranced into a dangerous position, surviving his own poor touch and then a tug by Gravesen. Just to make sure, McManus slid in also but the referee gave a foul for the Danish player's intervention. Adam wasted the free-kick and soon after Ferguson blundered when he blazed over with just the keeper to beat.
His fans started to rise as he swung a boot at the ball but they all had to slump back into their seats as he belted his shot high and wide. Ferguson slapped his hands to his head. The loud groans wouldn't even have registered. He knew he'd sinned.
As always, the pace was furious and the fans' hearts would have been thumping like jack hammers. We were witnessing another wild mix of skilful touches, misplaced passes, desperate clearances, flailing limbs, snarling and baying.
There was certainly no lack of effort or commitment on a greasy and wet surface that was cutting up quickly and b adly under the thundering hooves.
The Ibrox pitch, in fact, has been poor for several weeks and the ground staff had to scatter green sand to disguise the most threadbare areas.
However, Celtic's defence looked even thinner when Dado Prso powered into the box where he was brought down by Lee Naylor. Le Guen was out of the dugout claiming for the penalty but Tommy Murphy, the far side linesman, had correctly flagged for offside.
With every Rangers fan in the ground screaming their disapproval, the game raged on from one end to the other until, in 37 minutes, Naylor sent a cross from the left into Rangers' box.
McGregor, who had been hesitant and reluctant to come for crosses, missed the delivery completely and the ball dropped to Gravesen. He faced a difficult finish but, like aworld-class striker, smacked the ball powerfully and high into the net.
Rangers were stunned, their fans silenced, but it would have been much worse had Clark awarded the penalty when Smith caught Lennon in front of the Copland Road Stand.
Only the referee knows why he didn't blow but Rangers refused to sit back and had three wonderful chances to score within the space of a minute and a half.
First, in 61 minutes, Prso was through but his shot hit the base of Boruc's left-hand post and, pouncing on the rebound, Libor Sionko hooked in an effort that hit the other post before the ball squirted out of play.
Then Novo, who might have been barged, stayed upright and from 12 yards screwed the ball inches wide.
Filip Sebo took over from Sionko with Miller and Stephen Pearson replacing Shunsuke Nakamura and Jarosik, who was injured. The changes did little to better Celtic and McManus was booked for a foul on Prso. Then, in 80 minutes, Le Guen took Adam off and sent on Thomas Buff el but the Ibrox side were denied again by Boruc, who pulled off another amazing save to touch Prso's header round a post.
Sebo was booked for a wild challenge on Naylor just b ef ore Rangers' hero stepped forward. Gravesen probably felt he'd done enough to block Hemdani's shot but the ball spun up over Boruc and into the net.
With only seconds remaining Sebo could also have made himself a hero with Rangers' fans but shot straight at Celtic's keeper. Some things never change. Just like the points' difference, despite the effort, passion, sweat, tension and chances.
However, the draw should bring Le Guen some respite from his critics.