Rangers have now entered the territory of Devon Loch and Jean van de Velde. Steven Gerrard might deliberately point towards a 10-point lead at the summit of the Scottish Premiership if Celtic win their three games in hand but all available evidence suggests even that leeway will be sufficient. Any Rangers collapse from here would be as epic as it is unlikely.
No wonder Neil Lennon was dejected by the Old Firm outcome. Celtic were the better team for the opening 60 minutes and dominant during the first 45 with Nir Bitton’s subsequent dismissal affording Rangers momentum they gleefully grasped.
Confidence drained from the visitors as the Israel centre-back sent off for hauling down Alfredo Morelos in the 62nd minute. It seems odd to pinpoint defining moments at this, a juncture when Rangers had such an advantage anyway, but lingering Celtic hopes headed down the tunnel with Bitton.
The solitary goal had a freakish element. James Tavernier’s corner flew off the shoulder of Callum McGregor, one of Celtic’s best players, and into his own net.
This was a fixture Celtic could not afford to lose and Rangers did not particularly need to win; the result leaves Gerrard with one hand and four fingers on the league trophy.
“These games are all about big moments,” said the Rangers manager. “Celtic have got one badly wrong and we have capitalised on it and gone on to win the game. You don’t always get out of this game what your performance deserves. We know that more than most. So to win and not be at our best is a big positive for me.”
Critics of Lennon, of whom there are plenty, will say Celtic were ultimately punished for first-half profligacy. Yet they also met an inspired opponent in Allan McGregor, the Rangers keeper.
His early save from Odsonne Édouard was impressive, his touching of a subsequent and curling Leigh Griffiths effort on to the post outstanding.
This marked McGregor’s 401st Rangers appearance, less than a month before his 39th birthday. “You are talking about a legend of the club, a phenomenal goalkeeper,” said Gerrard. “It’s a shame he is nearly as old as me because I’d love him to be my keeper for many, many more years.”
Rangers’ troubles during those early exchanges was the anonymity of their forward players. That scenario improved slightly after the interval when Ianis Hagi replaced the injured Kemar Roofe, but Celtic remained the more likely to score before Bitton’s aberration. Lennon believes Bobby Madden flashed his red card in error.
Morelos had been chasing a Tavernier pass when Bitton, needlessly, indulged in the kind of action more typical of a rugby game. The incident occurred 22 yards from goal, outside the angle of the penalty area.
“Morelos might have got a shot off but it would have been from a very narrow angle,” said Lennon. “It’s not even in the box. I thought he was too quick to get the red out. It’s poor from Nir, but it’s not a red card and that changed the course of the game. We had been in full control.
“I was happy with the team. We had plans in place for later in the game but the red card changed that.
“I’m bitterly disappointed. There were a lot of good things to come out of the game. I hate losing, especially games of this magnitude and I don’t think we deserved to lose.”
Borna Barisic’s free kick, deflected narrowly wide, immediately preceded the corner that broke the deadlock. Callum McGregor appeared deceived by the movement of Joe Aribo, with the own goal an inauspicious way to mark the midfielder’s Old Firm captaincy.
Lennon has no alternative but to publicly vow to battle on. “You have got to keep going,” he said. “You can’t just say it’s over.”
Yet this Rangers team has conceded five goals in 22 league games. As Celtic’s players and management boarded a charter flight to Dubai, where they will partake in a winter training camp, they must privately know the race is all-but run. Rangers do not bear any resemblance to a team likely to choke in the home straight.