Steven Gerrard suffered his first disappointment as Rangers manager in the ‘Old Firm’ derby at Celtic Park on Sunday afternoon.
The Gers went down 1-0 to a second-half Olivier Ntcham goal, and Gerrard offered a frank and honest assessment after the game.
“We’re disappointed because it’s a big game, they’re our rivals and it’s our first defeat together, so it’s going to hurt and take a while to get over,” he said.
“I actually thought we were growing into the game – in the second-half we were a lot better. The first-half we didn’t play enough and we didn’t make enough passes, although our shape was OK.
“Looking at the game as a whole, Celtic were always going to have periods of possession. They have been together for fully two years and they have experience – winning experience - and we have been together for something like twelve weeks. Most of the possession was in front of us and I felt we were comfortable.
“I think we stayed strong in the first half in our shape, but I was disappointed with my team in that when we had the ball we didn’t keep it for long enough and we felt like we were hanging on a little bit in the opening 45 minutes but after what we’ve been through in midweek to get to half-time level was satisfying.”
The Ibrox Boss did attempt to put the game into some kind of perspective, given where Rangers were before he arrived.
“We will improve and next time this fixture comes around we’ll be better,” said Gerrard.
“It’s difficult to take positives from this game because we’ve just lost but we’ve had a lot of challenges and hurdles so I can’t be too critical,
“The previous three or four derbies I have watched, it has been a bit of a mis-match and Celtic have blown Rangers away with score-lines that have been unacceptable.
“I’m not saying 1-0 is acceptable but I’ve seen enough today to believe we can match Celtic in this fixture and that we’re going in the right direction. We’ll be better the next time the ‘Old Firm’ derby comes around.”
The second-half was certainly better from an Ibrox perspective.
“We asked the players to have a bit more courage in possession, play a bit better, and I thought in the second 45 we made it a contest and were much better,” said Gerrard.
“We had one or two decent openings – one from Morelos produced a good save then one from James (Tavernier) might have worked the ‘keeper a bit more.”
The loss of the only goal of the game to Olivier Ntcham was a bitter blow for Gerrard, given that he was adamant that a foul had been committed in the build-up.
“For me it’s a foul – and the fourth official is shouting it’s a foul,” he said.
“The referee has ignored that advice – he doesn’t think it’s a foul - but for me it’s a blatant foul although they’ve gone on the counter-attack and scored a great goal. It’s frustrating that it’s a clear foul.”
The International break is one that Gerrad welcomes.
“It means we can get on the training ground, we can work and we can drill the players as we haven’t really had much time to train, to work and to improve the players.
“Okay, today the result didn’t go our way, but it’s our first defeat together so it’s a setback, but we have to learn from our setbacks and take it on the chin.
“I think we’ve done ever so well. Obviously, Thursday night was a big moment – the first thing we’ve achieved together as a team.”
It was a game that for most of the first-half was dominated by Celtic without making the breakthrough whilst a much more even second-half might just have seen Rangers come away with a point.
Gerrard made two changes from Russia with Borna Barisic and Kyle Lafferty coming in for Jon Flanagan and Daniel Candeias.
Both clubs named as substitutes one of their two new signings made in the dying embers of the transfer window, namely Filip Benkovic for Celtic and Joe Worrall for Rangers.
With just 800 visiting fans amongst a packed Celtic Park housing 58,865 spectators, the atmosphere was certainly different from previous encounters between the two great rivals – but nevertheless the electricity and tension around Celtic Park remained much as before.
Rangers opened promisingly with Scott Brown receiving the first yellow card of the afternoon for a tenth minute foul on Lafferty.
Four minutes later Ryan Jack dispossessed the Celtic Captain just outside the area and sent in a right-foot shot from twenty yards that was just over.
Celtic soon began to dictate the play however with Allan McGregor twice called into action before the half-hour mark from dead-ball situations – firstly fisting clear a Callum McGregor free-kick from the right then from the other side turning behind one from Ntcham.
The home side were now dominating possession and as the first-half wore on the pressure on the Rangers goal began to intensify – firstly in the 33rd minute a stunning 25-yard drive from James Forrest struck the top of the crossbar, then seconds later from a Ntcham corner a header from Mikael Lustig struck the same woodwork before being scrambled clear.
Odsonne Edouard might have done better than direct his header straight at McGregor from namesake Calum’s cross – but the Light Blue goal survived intact until the interval.
The ‘Gers ‘keeper produced what was surely the save of the match four minutes after the restart when he diverted a 25-yard drive from Ntcham onto the crossbar – but the Ibrox men were beginning to probe the Celtic defence in an effort to turn the tide with Niko Katic seeing his 53rd minute header held by home ‘keeper Craig Gordon.
The deadlock was finally broken just after the hour when Celtic hit on the counter-attack after Referee Willie Collum failed to penalise Tom Rogic for an alleged foul on Ryan Jack, despite fourth official John Beaton indicating a free-kick. Celtic broke quickly to the other end with Forrest squaring for Ntcham to turn the ball home.
That was a body-blow for Steven Gerrard’s men – and midway through the second-half Lustig came close to adding a second when his header from substitute Leigh Griffith’s corner drifted just wide of the far post.
Sixty seconds later however Alfredo Morelos almost produced an equaliser out of thin air when he overpowered Dedryck Boyata on the left only to see his angled drive turned wide by Craig Gordon.
Rangers were coming more and more into the game as the minutes ticked away – Lafferty might have done better on 74 minutes than head wide at the back post from a James Tavernier cross.
Gerrard had not utilised any substitutes until the eightieth minute when he introduced Glenn Middleton for Ryan Jack. It was a strange change as the midfielder had been outstanding throughout.
McGregor was however called into action one more time five minutes later when beating out a Griffiths free-kick from the edge of the area.
The final chance for an equaliser – and it was a good one – fell to Tavernier three minutes later when from a Morelos cutback he shot across the face of goal with the net gaping.
Time eventually ran out on a Rangers side who arguably offered their opponents too much respect whilst also surely feeling the effects of that long and tiring journey to Russia.
Celtic: Gordon; Lustig, Boyata, Ajer, Tierney; Forrest (Sinclair 90), Ntcham, Brown, Rogic (Christie 76), McGregor; Edouard (Griffiths 67)
Unused Subs: Bain, Gamboa, Benkovic, Kouassi
Rangers: McGregor; Tavernier, Goldson, Katic, Barisic; Kent (Candeias 86), Jack (Middleton 80), Arfield, Ejaria, Lafferty; Morelos
Unused Subs: McCrorie, Foderingham, Worrall, Flanagan, Halliday