SO, that was the real Rangers, then. The one promised by their captain James Tavernier.
The team that he vowed would finally see off their greatest rivals and destroy dreams of a fifth Celtic treble in seven seasons.
Except, it wasn’t to be for the ‘Penalty King’, and for all the typical pre-match bravado, the men in blue couldn’t get the job done.
Such is the current gap between the two sides that Rangers have failed to defeat Celtic in 90 minutes since August 2021, when Ange Postecoglou was barely in the door and working with a side still littered with players who saw their futures elsewhere.
What we witnessed on Sunday at Hampden in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup was a Hoops team certainly not at their free-flowing best, but who still managed to dig deep and now find themselves one step away from becoming history makers.
I know I jest about the ‘real’ Rangers, but in fairness, they gave it a go and should get an A for effort.
Following Jota’s first-half header that put Celtic into the lead, Michael Beale’s team came out for the second 45 and tried with all their might to save what has been a disaster of a season. They huffed and puffed but couldn’t break down the impenetrable wall that is Cameron Carter-Vickers and Carl Starfelt at the heart of the Bhoys’ defence.
Glasgow derbies are always tense affairs, and on the day, when there’s not a lot separating matters, it can be won and lost in key moments. Jota’s goal is a perfect example of this.
It appeared that Matt O’Riley was fouled just outside the penalty area by Nicolas Raskin, and anticipating a referee’s whistle that never came, the Rangers defence stood frozen in time while the quick-thinking Daizen Maeda stole the ball and whipped in a delightful cross for the Portuguese winger to nod home.
And aside from a glaring Fashion Sakala miss just after the hour-mark, Celtic were able to soak up the pressure, safe in the knowledge that the opposition didn’t have the quality to land a killer blow.
Ange has built a squad that prides itself on an entertaining brand of football, but Sunday showed that they’re well adept at the art of defending, and aren’t afraid to demonstrate a degree of pragmatism based on how a match is panning out.
The manager, who couldn’t contain his joy in the post-match celebrations, said: “It’s a semi-final, there’s a big prize at the end so we knew it wouldn’t be easy. Dare I say it, we never stop. We’re always alert and force the opposition into mistakes.”
And on setting up a final showdown with Inverness Caledonian Thistle on June 3, he added: “We still have to do the business. What we’ve done is we’ve given ourselves the opportunity to do something special, now we have got to go out there and do it.”
Caley, who are fifth in the Scottish Championship, breezed past Falkirk in Saturday’s semi-final, winning 3-0.
Celtic will naturally be hot favourites to lift the cup, but Inverness are a club still living off a result that led to the sacking of John Barnes 23 years ago. The night they went “ballistic” – who could forget the headline?
Cup final upsets are hardly rare and Celtic will need to take a no-nonsense approach against a club that’ll look on this game as arguably the biggest in their history. But before we get to that, there’s still the small matter of wrapping up the title.
Victory at Hearts on Sunday (kick-off 2.15pm) will seal Celtic’s 53rd Scottish league and guarantee Champions League group stage football for next season.
The Jambos are now temporarily managed by former player Steven Naismith who has been placed in charge until the summer after Robbie Neilson was sacked following a string of awful results which saw them slip down the table.
Naismith won his first game 6-1 against bottom-of-the-table Ross County and will be more than keen to delay the Hoops’ title party, especially given that he’s also a former Rangers player.
And while confidence is high in the Celtic camp, it was a blown to learn that Carter-Vickers has been ruled out for the remainder of the campaign through injury.
It had been speculated that the English-born American was struggling with a knee issue and a plan was put in place to get him through Sunday before sending him for surgery.
Yuki Kobayashi is the obvious replacement, and while he hasn’t featured too often since completing a free transfer from Vissel Kobe in January, it’s his big chance to prove he can be trusted to step in for Vickers, who has been immense since the day he arrived in Glasgow.
Yosuke Ideguchi aside, Postecoglou has struck gold with the Japanese contingent.
The club now appears to be capitalising on their growing stature in the Far East by confirming plans for a Japan and South Korea pre-season tour this summer.
Celtic will take part in a European training camp before visiting Japan for the first time since 2006, with dates and friendly opponents to be announced. A shrewd move that will fire a few million quid into the bank accounts.
Whether some people like it or not, football clubs these days are brands and a business, and the more you can enhance your reputation on a global level, the more revenue will be generated, allowing for on-the-field improvement. It’s definitely going to be an interesting summer.
Ange said after the match on Sunday that Celtic aren’t a top team “yet”, a clear reference to their position in Europe. And he’s correct, the six Champions League group games this season proved that.
I wouldn’t expect major surgery in terms of recruitment come July and August, instead the objective will be to add just a few names who will immediately improve the starting XI.
Some ruthless decisions may have to be made, and if the right player is available, don’t be shocked to see the club break its transfer record.
There can be no standing still, it’s time to be more ambitious than ever.