In a domestic run that now extends to 31 cup games without defeat, a 10th straight trophy and a fourth successive League Cup triumph, Celtic did something at Hampden on Sunday that they have not had to do at any point throughout their stranglehold on the Scottish game; they committed an act of larceny against a Rangers side who could not find a way past the inspirational goalkeeper Fraser Forster.
The Australian midfielder Tom Rogic sealed the fabled Invincibles campaign in Brendan Rodgers’s first season at the club with a last gasp winner against Aberdeen in the 2017 Scottish Cup final but that particular goal came after a second-half bombardment of the Pittodrie side.
Not that Neil Lennon will care too much. The Celtic manager became only the second man in the history of Scottish football to win all three domestic honours with one club as player and manager. Since taking over from Rodgers in February he has also led Celtic to three successive tophies.
Hampden yesterday seemed like a tables-turned affair from the mid-90s as Celtic absorbed wave after wave of Rangers attacks before nicking a winner. That television pictures suggested three Celtic players were offside as Christopher Jullien turned Ryan Christie’s free-kick into the net on the hour mark only served to rub salt into Ibrox wounds.
And what of Alfredo Morelos? The Colombian striker has won plaudits and credit this season for a run of games in which he has shown composure and elegance in front of goal, as his current haul of 25 would testify. But his achilles heel comes against Celtic with his profligacy here perhaps the most wounding of all for his side. His temperament, too, showed a flash of the old Morelos in one incident when he seemed to rake his studs down the back of Celtic captain’s Scott Brown’s leg.
Skipping past the Norwegian defender Kristoffer Ajer, who had slid in on Morelos without winning the ball midway through the opening period, the stage was set for the striker to score his first goal against Celtic as he bore down Forster. But the goalkeeper, who had warmed up for his heroic afternoon with an excellent left-hand save from a rasping Ryan Jack 25-yard effort, stuck out a leg to thwart Morelos.
It was the first on many. Scott Arfield’s deft pass into the feet of Morelos put the striker in behind the Celtic defence only for Forster to spread his body and make the block. But the most damning miss came in the immediate aftermath of Celtic’s goal.
The 18-year-old Jeremie Frimpong showed his inexperience as he barged into the back of Morelos. The striker went down, the referee Willie Collum pointed to the spot and Frimpong’s afternoon was ended prematurely with a flash of the red card. James Tavernier, Rangers’ usual penalty taker but who has missed three this season, later suggested the gameplan all along was for Morelos to take any spot kicks. Given the manner in which his afternoon had gone and with the benefit of hindsight, it would have been wise to hand the ball to a willing alternative.
Forster dived to his right to save the penalty, at once lifting Celtic and puncturing Rangers’ spirit.
Celtic could and should have guaranteed a more comfortable passage towards the finish line. Odsonne Edouard was not fit enough to start the game but came off the bench minutes before Jullien netted and was almost the architect of what would have been a definitive second goal.
An intelligent, perfectly weighted pass played in Mikey Johnston, who had replaced the ineffective Mohamed Elyounoussi at the break, but as the youngster headed through one-on-one with the Rangers keeper Allan McGregor he slipped and pushed his effort wide of the target.
It made for a frantic finale to the game as 10-man Celtic hung on. There were jubilant scenes from the Parkhead side when the whistle went while Rangers were crushed after having given so much to be left with so little.
Rangers’ performance offers evidence to suggest that the gap between the sides is as tight as it has been since the club went into administration in 2011. There was guile and spirit about their display which has not always been the case in these affairs. It would have felt like scant consolation.