12:08:32 PMCeltic 2-1 Rangers
HE measures only about five foot six in his Celtic socks but last night little Scott McDonald found it within himself to grow extra inches and save Celtic's title defence just when all hope seemed lost. |
On an evening so drenched in drama it took the breath away the Aussie recovered from missing a second-half penalty to set-up strikemate Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink for a winning goal in injury time which means Gordon Strachan's title defence is alive and kicking again.
McDonald threw himself at a deep cross, jumping higher than his marker, to head the ball across goal and when the Dutchman applied the finishing touch the former Motherwell man slumped to his knees in sheer relief.
It was a barnstorming climax to a thrilling match which would end in angry and chaotic scenes as the bad blood spilled over on the final blast of Kenny Clark's whistle and players squared up.
In the centre of it all was another little big man, Nacho Novo, who had fired Rangers level after coming off the bench at half-time.
Novo's goal cancelled out a stunning opener from Shunsuke Nakamura and, even though Rangers were down to 10 men after Carlos Cuellar was sent off, the Spaniard's strike looked to have ended Strachan's hopes.
But McDonald and Vennegoor of Hesselink teamed up to save their boss from a certain savaging and ensure this titanic SPL struggle is not over. Not by a long shot.
Strachan, having lost four on the spin to Smith, had options and much on which to ponder but still chose to make things as uncomplicated as possible.
No tinkering with his 4-4-2 formation. Not a single change to the team that took Motherwell apart. If he was about to take a fall then he was going to go down HIS way.
Smith wasn't spring any shocks either. The old faithful 4-5-1 was dusted down and loaded up with the usual blue bullets.
Steve Davis moved in one from the right flank to join Christian Dailly and Barry Ferguson in the central area. With Lee McCulloch and Steven Whittaker manning the wings, it was up to Ferguson and Davis to pierce the very heart of Strachan's side and overpower both Barry Robson and Paul Hartley. Well, that was Smith's plan.
Rangers, after all, had crossed the river full of belief and brimming with confidence and their fans - who cheered sarcastically as Celtic's team boomed out man by man over the speakers - had made the journey expecting to see the title wrapped up behind enemy lines. They had come to witness Celtic's nightmare scenario unfold. Strachan and his players knew it.
There was a manic edge to the air over Glasgow's East End as the teams emerged and within 15 seconds it had developed into blood lust as Robson clattered into Dailly with a leading arm.
This was a signal of Celtic's intent to go to war. It was not long before Hartley was scampering back stride to stride with Jean-Claude Darcheville and superbly robbing the Frenchman of possession deep inside Artur Boruc's penalty box.
Celtic were swarming all over Smith's tried and tested formula and it was not long before they started finding gaps.
Nakamura's delightful and delicate probe left Rangers' defence flat-footed and static but although Vennegoor of Hesselink bustled through one on one with Allan McGregor his clumsy first touch allowed the keeper to make a brave save at his feet.
Rangers, though, looked rattled and unsure of themselves as the champions continued to come at them and McCulloch had to limp away for treatment after being cemented by a late Hartley lunge. The midfielder was booked but he had got his message across. Celtic meant business.
They almost took the lead in 18 minutes when Dailly scrambled a Gary Caldwell header off his own goal-line during a period of Celtic pressure from which they won a series of corners - most of which were delivered expertly by Robson's left boot.
The goal did finally arrive in 20 minutes. And what a goal.
There didn't seem like any great danger at first as Nakamura glided forward on to a square pass from Andreas Hinkel but two bounces later the little man lashed his left foot through the ball with style and venom.
His effort travelled 25 yards in the blink of any eye, swerving and dipping on its way, before exploding in the back of the net. Celtic Park let out a roar so raw and so powerful it just about ripped the roof off.
Suddenly, Rangers' players looked lost and vulnerable. They could not get near the ball and Kirk Broadfoot's crude attempts at preventing Aiden McGeady from bursting clear down the left earned the full-back the second yellow card of the half.
But Rangers showed the merest signs of recovery towards the end of the half once their heads had begun to clear. Darcheville started to find his stride and from two runs came two chances. The first was slashed wildly over the top from distance by the striker. The second was a peculiar affair.
Played in by Whittaker's subtle pass, Darcheville clubbed at the ball only for his right boot to come flying off on impact. The shot went wide off Boruc - the boot flew over the keeper's bar. And Celtic made it inside with their lead intact.
It was Smith's turn now to come up with something different. That something was Novo. The little Spaniard appeared for the second half with Broadfoot staying indoors and Whittaker dropping to right-back.
Strachan was forced into one change with Lee Naylor, who had suffered a hefty knock, replaced by Mark Wilson.
With Novo injecting menace, Celtic were being given reason to have to think.
The sub needed only nine minutes to fire Rangers level after Wilson had been caught out of position by Whittaker's cleverly cushioned lob.
Novo raced clear into acres of space and without a Celtic defender to close him down he had time to look up and size up a shot. Even then, with the angle uninvitingly tight, Novo needed to conjure something special. He did. A right-foot shoot which fizzed beyond Boruc and in crashed into the gap at keeper's right-hand post.
Suddenly it was Smith's players who were demanding possession and puffing out their chests as they picked their passes and probed at Celtic's defence. It was their turn to look ragged and dazed.
Once Celtic had recaptured their composure they carved out a terrific chance to reclaim the lead but Robson's shot was charged down by a cluster of blue shirts.
Then, in 68 minutes, Nakamura cut in from the right to smash a drive towards goal. With McGregor beaten, Cuellar threw out a hand to turn the shot onto the bar.
The Spaniard was given a red card. Celtic were awarded a penalty. And McDonald was handed the chance to beat a lame looking McGregor from 12 yards.
The keeper had injured his left leg and was limping as McDonald spotted the ball.
Moments later he was hurling himself to his left to pull off a miraculous save and turn McDonald's effort on to a post.
It would be his last major contribution before he hirpled off to be replaced by Neil Alexander for the final 13 minutes.
Strachan also made a change, replacing Robson with Georgios Samaras. His decision was greeted by furious jeers from the home supporters but Strachan had to go for broke.
But Samaras blew his big chance six minutes from time when he went up to meet aWilson cross only to head wide with Alexander grasping at thin air.
But this incredible contest had one last, decisive moment left. McDonald made up for his miss by leaping an extraordinary height to get his head on to a hanging Hinkel cross and loop it over Alexander for Vennegoor of Hesselink to nod into an empty net.
McDonald sank to his knees as, all around, bedlam broke out. He had got himself, his club and his manager off the hook and now this remarkable campaign is set to go into overdrive.
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