Ten-man Celtic won a historic 10th successive domestic trophy when they claimed the Betfred League Cup by beating Rangers at Hampden. But Neil Lennon, 19 years, almost exactly, since signing for Celtic as a player, was fortuitous to prevail against opponents who threw everything at his team in an attempt to thwart their domestic stranglehold.
The French defender Christopher Jullien turned a Ryan Christie free-kick past Allan McGregor on the hour mark but the real hero of the hour for Celtic was goalkeeper Fraser Forster who repelled Rangers, and Alfredo Morelos in particular, with a number of impressive saves, the most notable of which came from the penalty spot.
Jeremie Frimpong left the pitch in tears three minutes after Celtic had opened the scoring after barging into the back of Morelos. Shown an immediate red card by the referee Willie Collum, the 18-year-old could only listen to the cheers of the Celtic support from the dressing room as Forster guessed correctly to dive to his right and deny the Colombian. It meant Morelos, despite being Rangers’ top scorer this season with 25 goals, has yet to score a goal against Celtic.
The Ibrox side set the tone for an opening period which they dominated from the start with two corners in quick succession inside the opening two minutes. Connor Goldson had an early chance as he rose above Jullien to get on the end of James Tavernier’s deliveries. Ultimately they came to nothing but it offered Rangers early encouragement and belief that they could take the game to Celtic.
Rangers started the game with what was effectively an attacking triumvirate when they had the ball. Morelos was assisted by wide men Joe Aribo and Ryan Kent making regular incursions inside with Celtic penned in their own half for the bulk of the first half
Celtic had Forster to thank for keeping the scores level when the goalkeeper beat away a 25-yard effort from the Rangers midfielder Ryan Jack.
The goalkeeper was then called on again twice to deny Morelos. The striker had caused panic in the Celtic defence after skipping beyond a sliding tackle from Kristoffer Ajer. The Norwegian has matured hugely in the last 12 months at Celtic but there is a criticism that he goes to ground too readily. His misjudgment allowed Morelos to advance from the right before opting for the shot when squaring the ball across the six-yard box might have yielded a better return – only for Forster to deny him with a low block.
Six minutes before the break it was Morelos again who looked most likely to breach Celtic’s goal. A delicate pass from Scott Arfield sent the striker through on goal only for Forster to spread his body and make yet another block.
As Celtic toiled to find any kind of fluency, they had only an Ajer header from a Ryan Christie corner and a lashed effort well wide of the target from Lewis Morgan, who started up front, to show for their opening 45 minutes.
Celtic made a change at the break when they introduced Mikey Johnston for the ineffective Mohamed Elyounoussi. The pattern of the game remained the same, however. Forster produced another fine stop by getting a strong hand on the ball to beat away a Morelos header.
That the biggest cheer of the afternoon from the Celtic support came as Odsonne Edouard, on the substitutes bench after failing to recover from an injury, came on to the pitch told its own story.
Then came the goal when Jullien converted Christie’s free-kick. Television pictures suggested Jullien was marginally offside but as VAR is not used in Scotland there was no question mark over the legality of the goal.
Frimpong then immediately gave Rangers a chance to get back into the game when he charged into the back of Morelos. After Frimpong had been dismissed, Forster repelled Morelos’s effort, diving to his right to save.
The penalty miss summed up Rangers’ day.
Johnston should have added for Celtic. Slipped through one-on-one with McGregor he struck his shot wide of the target.