After two wins for each side already this season, Sunday’s derby clash at Celtic Park may not have brought the definitive win both sides craved but the 1-1 draw did at least bring a certain symmetry to the head-to-head record.
And while Fashion Sakala’s precise finish may have cancelled out Jota’s opener and ensured a share of the spoils on the day, it made little difference to the bigger picture.
Celtic’s march to the title won’t be knocked off course by a draw that keeps the defending champions at six points distance with three games to go. Giovanni van Bronckhorst knows it and Ange Postecoglou knows it; though neither can say anything other than ‘it ain’t over ‘til it’s over’.
The Australian saw his team leave the pitch with their lead intact but – while that advantage is significant enough to see Celtic all but certain to be crowned Premiership champions – the evidence on Sunday pointed to their being very little between the rivals at this point.
A couple of weeks after a Scottish Cup semi-final that took extra time to decide, the teams once again found themselves level after 90 minutes and it was interesting to note the respect in Celtic’s post-match interviews for an evenly-matched opponent.
Joe Hart was up first and the experienced former England international had clearly relished what he said was a “really, really, really good game”, “a tough game and a great game”. He was at pains to point out that Celtic had gone toe-to-toe with a strong side.
“[They are a] good team. Champions last year, semi-finalist in a top European competition,” he said. “We’re playing against proper opposition.”
Postecoglou was reflecting on the fact that his squad was in their first season together and went out of his way to stress the competition they faced.
He talked about his newly-constructed side “playing against a team that’s been together for three years and were champions last year.”
“They’re good,” he said. “There’s a pretty strong opponent, as you saw today, that we had to overcome.”
Giovanni van Bronckhorst showed the respect was mutual with his team selection.
The mood music from the Rangers support in the build-up was that for once a less than full strength team wouldn’t be frowned upon in the derby. The fans knew there were bigger fish to fry with RB Leipzig coming to town in midweek for a Europa League semi-final tie that is still very much in the balance.
If fresh legs for the glamour tie under the lights were a priority, it didn’t show in the line-up with van Bronckhorst clearly thinking that a weakened side and derby defeat would be damaging in the build-up for the bigger game.
As it turned out, the Rangers boss got a performance that will only build confidence ahead of the must-win game.
After 60 games already this season, it might have been expected that the Ibrox side would be running on empty. Instead, they’re motoring on regardless.
Having started brightly, then fallen behind, van Bronckhorst’s side put in an energetic performance, full of desire and willingness to put in the hard yards in defence and attack, with the reward coming in the shape of Sakala’s goal. The visitors hit the post and created other good chances and it bodes well for Thursday when they will need to find the net against Leipzig.
It goes without saying that the Rangers boss would have preferred a better schedule to help his team have a fighting chance of reaching the Europa League final but he may well reflect that he couldn’t have asked for a better match than Sunday’s to keep his players’ competitive edge and standards.
Though both have three Premiership matches left and the Premiership trophy isn’t ready to be engraved just yet, the rivals effectively go their separate ways now. Celtic will focus on completing the job and then reflect on a productive first season with a new manager and players.
Meanwhile, Rangers instantly turned their attention to a European match of massive proportions and they also have a Scottish Cup final to look forward to, where van Bronckhorst’s best chance of a first piece of silverware as manager lie.
The derbies are done for the season but they’ll be back. Both bosses have business still to do before the end of the season and will then have a summer where they’ll rebuild a little more and continue to shape their squads into what they want, before going at it again.
From Sunday’s showing, there’s little between them at this moment in time, and room for both to step up a level as they bid for domestic dominance.