Street smarts serve Rangers well
It seems it's impossible to stage an Old Firm derby without introducing a large dollop of controversy to the equation, with complaints from rival supporters - but particularly Celtic fans - about decisions which were or weren't taken by officials. Sunday was no exception.
The first meeting of the Glasgow giants this season followed a familiar pattern, with hot-headed tackles and players flinging their teddies out of the pram at regular intervals, which meant it was a baptism of fire for 31 year-old teacher, Willie Collum.
But although the referee got one or two decisions wrong, nothing should detract from the fact that Rangers were deserving of their 3-1 victory and once again, for the fourth SPL fixture in a row, recovered from losing the opening goal to record their ninth consecutive win.
First, let's deal with the litany of transgressions which caught Collum's eye and some of those that he chose not to punish. Anthony Stokes was fortunate only to be booked for a horrible challenge on Sasa Papac in the first minute of the tussle; if it had been the 41st or 71st minute, the former Hibs striker would probably have seen red.
Likewise, Lee McCulloch was lucky not to receive a second caution in the opening half, a conclusion with which Rangers manager, Walter Smith obviously concurred, given that he replaced the Scotland international with Kirk Broadfoot at the interval.
Then, there was the penalty verdict which allowed Rangers to move 3-1 in front. At second and third glance, it appeared that there was minimal contact between Daniel Majstorovic and Broadfoot, even though the latter crashed to earth as if he had been shot by a sniper in the stand.
At other stages of a typically fractious encounter, Steven Naismith might have incurred the wrath of a stricter disciplinarian, while Georgios Samaras' late tackle on the Rangers man was the desperate act of somebody who had completely lost the plot. In all these incidents - and other instances - Collum had to react with spur-of-the-moment judgments and, generally, he was on the money.
The only thing which Celtic aficionados can really gripe about was conceding the penalty and yet the bottom line is that, in most of the areas which mattered, Rangers were the superior team, Indeed, one suspects that, once the dust has settled, Neil Lennon will be more concerned with the frailties of his defence and the lacklustre displays of performers such as Stokes, Samaras, Majstorovic, Ki Sung-Yueng and Glenn Loovens than he will about the performance of Collum and his deputies.
Over the piece, Rangers were positive going forward and the likes of Madjid Bougherra enhanced his reputation in these high-profile tussles with another masterful showing. Steven Davis continued to impress in midfield, while Kenny Miller demonstrated once again that Celtic were stupid to dispense with his services and it was significant that Smith's men, all of whom had Old Firm derby experience - unlike their opponents - never lost their cohesion, nor their shape, even when Gary Hooper put the hosts ahead towards the end of the first half.
In these circumstances, if Rangers had broken the deadlock, one suspects Smith might have bolted the door shut, sent on an extra defender, and attempted to catch his rivals as they pushed forward. Celtic, in contrast, didn't seem to know what they were doing when they emerged for the second period and, worryingly for their fans, their defence caved in as the pressure mounted on their ramparts.
This deficiency repeatedly haunted the Parkhead side under the hapless Tony Mowbray, but there had been few indications of similar fallibility during Celtic's lustrous start to the new campaign. Yet, whether in the panicky fashion with which Glenn Loovens gifted an own goal to the visitors, or the dearth of control from Majstorovic which permitted Miller the chance to seize the lead, albeit with a stunning finish, there were myriad signs that Lennon's personnel lack the streetwise instincts of their city rivals.
In the final analysis, Rangers had a plan and the wit to commit to it; wherever one looked, they boasted hard-nosed professionals, with the requisite mettle and verve to orchestrate chances, and the clinical ability to rub salt in the wound.
Celtic, once they had surrendered their lead, were all over the shop and, irrespective of the prolific form of Stokes and Samaras against lesser opposition, there was little here to suggest that they are long-term solutions for Lennon. Nor, on this evidence, has Aiden McGeady been adequately replaced.
Granted, it is just one victory, and only three points separate the Old Firm, while both managers possess too much savvy to indulge in an excess of triumph at this juncture of the season. But the nagging concern for the Celtic faithful will be that Lennon has lost all the battles which have really mattered, whether in being knocked out of the Scottish Cup by Ross County, subsiding to Braga in the Champions League, or tasting defeat to Rangers.
He has to rally his troops quickly, and work out his defensive options for future contests of this intensity, otherwise Walter Smith will be celebrating another title. And now they have an advantage, Smith's men will be determined to ensure they maintain their recent impressive form, both on domestic duty and in Europe. They may have more perspiration than inspiration, but they are mighty effective all the same.