The answer was delivered with a smile but its immediacy was pertinent. “No,” replied Brendan Rodgers when asked whether his Celtic team’s position, one game from a domestic treble, exceeds the expectations the former Liverpool manager held last summer. “Maybe if you’d asked me after that game in Gibraltar, I’d have said something different,” added Rodgers, again only partly in jest. Celtic remain unbeaten on the home front and, the vast body of evidence suggests, are destined to be Scotland’s dominant club for a long time yet.
That minor stumble against Lincoln Red Imps has long since become an irrelevance. It probably isn’t good for business – and it certainly isn’t for city harmony – for those involved to point out the massive gulf between Celtic and Rangers, but how it was exposed in this Scottish Cup semi-final. Only the background din and level of policing rendered this an Old Firm fixture; had the Rangers players instead worn the colours of Motherwell, the on-field spectacle would not have been any different.
There were two strands to this scenario. Rangers were woefully passive in the first half – a wild Andy Halliday lunge, which merited a red card, aside – and thereby afforded Celtic added momentum that they may or may not have needed. Pedro Caixinha, the Rangers manager, did himself few favours afterwards by revealing he took the advice of his assistant, Hélder Baptista, just before his final team talk.
“Hélder came to me at the end of the warm-up and told me, ‘Please, in your speech before the match, don’t be that strong. Don’t be so tough. They need to feel a little bit more freedom,’” Caixinha said. “He felt they were really tense. They were really focused on the idea of playing the game but totally focused without enjoying what was going to happen.”
Nobody in light blue could relish what happened next. Whatever message Caixinha delivered, it failed. Rangers couldn’t lay a glove on Celtic’s attackers and offered no threat whatsoever of their own, save a flurry late in the game that never really looked like denying Rodgers his treble chance. At least Caixinha has the chance of instant redemption, with Celtic due at Ibrox on league business next weekend.
This was, by Rodgers’ correct assessment, “Celtic’s day”. It provided a fascinating parallel to 12 months ago, when victory for Rangers over their oldest foes at the same cup juncture confirmed the end for Ronny Deila. In seeking Deila’s successor, Celtic pushed the boat out for Rodgers and have been handsomely rewarded.
“What’s important is that we see progress,” explained Rodgers. “We are still a bit away from being where I’d want us to be but there have been really good signs throughout the course of the season and it’s a pleasure to work with these players.
“Our season won’t finish until the last whistle of the Scottish Cup final. But I’m happy for the supporters – they had a tough one here last year.”
Among many Rodgers successes has been the reversal of an ominous Hampden record. Celtic have won three times in as many visits to Scotland’s national stadium this season and haven’t, in truth, looked at risk at any stage of those matches.
When they return, it might be minus the prolific Moussa Dembélé. The striker damaged a hamstring in the 27th minute of the latest win over Rangers, with Rodgers cautious when asked about a timescale for his return. “We need to see the scan,” said Rodgers. “We’ll see. If it’s a full blown hamstring then he probably wouldn’t be [available for the final]. It is still late April and that’s not until late May. We’ll see what the scan brings.”
Proving even Celtic setbacks under Rodgers don’t tend to be significant, Dembélé had already provided an assist for the game’s opening goal. The former Fulham player collected a long pass from Mikael Lustig before playing in Callum McGregor, who slotted home with a level of composure not usually associated with Scottish players.
Kenny Miller offered Rangers’ first shot at goal, 41 minutes into proceedings. When the same player registered his team’s first shot on target, more than an hour had passed. By that stage, Celtic were two ahead; James Tavernier clattered the marauding Leigh Griffiths and Scott Sinclair scored the resultant penalty.
A snapshot of Rangers’ ragged state arrived 25 minutes from time, Jason Holt playing a free-kick back towards his centre-half Danny Wilson, who promptly passed the ball out of play. This comical, desperate stuff was only punctured by a couple of late Miller efforts.
“We respected the opponent too much,” insisted Caixinha. “That is not how we prepared. Celtic deserved to win, we should have done much better.”
Tom Rogic was denied a Celtic third only by the width of the post. In what almost served as an insult to Rangers, their neighbours didn’t seem altogether bothered about adding to their goal tally. The relentless march towards a place in history continues apace for Rodgers, for whom Glasgow stars aligned at precisely the right time.