Monday, 21 March 2011

League Cup Final: Celtic 1 Rangers 2 AET

Rangers edged a hectic cup final to take the first silverware of the season.  The key to their victory was preventing Celtic from playing to their usual standard which, contrary to what many predicted, came from a good balance of attacking and defending along with some excellent pressing.

Kyle Bartley was ruled out because of an injury picked up against PSV on Thursday and Ricky Foster was cup-tied so Walter Smith brought in Steven Naismith and Nikica Jelavic and lined his side up 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1, depending on whether in possession or not.  The switch from a five to a four-man defence was necessary due to the injury to Bartley, however, it could be argued that the more enterprising approach would have transpired regardless.

Celtic replaced Glenn Loovens with Thomas Rogne and Mark Wilson returned from suspension, as did Scott Brown, and they started ahead of Efrain Juarez and Ki Sung-Yeung.  Throughout the match they switched between their lopsided 4-4-2 and 4-2-2-2 but too many underperformances from too many players meant they failed to hit the same heights as they have done in recent months.

Rangers' more attacking approach

The opening stages were open and played at an incredible pace.  It is unclear whether Rangers’ more enterprising strategy was influenced by their second half performance on Thursday or because this was a cup final but either way they stopped Celtic’s key dangermen from playing to their usual level.

Celtic’s midfield began narrow with Brown and Kris Commons playing just ahead of Beram Kayal and Joe Ledley.   Usually the width is provided by Mark Wilson and Emilio Izaguirre but with Rangers playing with two advanced wide midfielders, the Celtic full-backs found themselves pinned back for much of the match.

When they did attempt to get forward, Rangers were quick to double up on them and they rarely found themselves in possession in areas where they could do damage.  Rangers’ defensive performance was based on their full-backs staying in position, rather than pushing on, and a fantastic first half performance from Maurice Edu who consistently broke up Celtic attacks and offered terrific protection to his defence.  He and Steven Davis both played relatively deep when in possession and the Northern Ireland international was able to start off a number of attacks.

As well as this, Rangers pressed higher than they have done in Old Firm matches this season and, even though he didn’t cause many problems with the ball, Naismith denied Kayal and Ledley the time on the ball they would have liked by playing in the area the two were operating in.

Rangers’ strategy while in possession was to play quick and direct passes, whether long towards Jelavic or else wide to Greg Wylde or Kyle Lafferty.

The opportunity for the opening goal came from a long punt up-field from Neil Alexander.  Joe Ledley failed to control Charlie Mulgrew’s defensive header and this allowed Davis to collect the ball and cut inside.  The Celtic defence dropped deeper and deeper as his run progressed and they allowed him slip the ball into the corner of the net.

Celtic responded quickly and were back on level terms within eight minutes.  All their attacks in the first half had come down the left-hand side, with Commons pulling wide more often than he has in recent matches and it was from this side that their equaliser came.  After taking a throw-in in an attacking area, Emilio Izaguirre received the ball back from Commons and created half a yard of space for himself before whipping in a cross that was flicked on by Georgios Samaras and headed into the net by Ledley.

Even though Rangers edged the first half, at least on the amount of chances created, Celtic’s passing was slicker when they did enjoy spells of possession and they arguably created the best chance when Brown headed wide unchallenged.

Second half – Celtic’s substitutes fail to inspire

Rangers switched to a 4-4-2 at the start of the second half with Lafferty joining Jelavic in attack and Naismith moving wide right.  They continued to get the ball wide but now had two tall strikers to aim for.  Even though Lafferty’s position was as a striker, he continued the crucial role that Naismith had effectively carried out in the first half, dropping deep and closing down Kayal and Ledley whenever they received the ball.

With sixty-five minutes played Celtic withdrew Brown for Ki, Commons moved over to the right and Ledley moved left.  Their midfield was now a bit flatter than it had been previously, however, the changes failed to give Celtic any advantage.  Ki can usually dictate, even when not afforded much space, but he failed to get on the ball a great deal.  Ledley and Commons were also both very quiet in the second half.

The final twenty-five minutes of the ninety were very stop-start and Rangers were forced to reshuffle their defence when Madjid Bougherra hobbled off injured.  Kyle Hutton replaced him with Edu moving to right-back and Steven Whittaker into central defence.  Despite their makeshift back four, Rangers continued to prevent Celtic from creating many opportunities.

Weiss introduction and Jelavic goal seals it in extra-time

Just before the ninety minutes expired, Vladimir Weiss took to the field in place of Lafferty and sat just off Jelavic as Rangers returned to the formation they started the match with.  The Slovakian’s pace was proving to be a handful for the tired legs of Celtic and he gave his side a valuable outlet during counter attacks as well as drawing a few fouls.  It is worth noting that Celtic turned to the tricky yet slow Paddy McCourt for some inspiration towards the end of the first period of extra time but he made little impact.

One of the more debateable fouls on Weiss led to the winning goal.  Weiss took the free kick quickly, sending Jelavic through as the Celtic defence reacted slowly, and the Croatian striker’s finish spun in off the post.

Not only did Weiss have a major influence on the match up to and for the winning goal, he was able to retain possession effectively afterwards which relieved the pressure on the Rangers’ defence.  The value of Weiss’s pace at such a time in the match was summed up when he outpaced the usually quick but tiring Izaguirre, which saw the Celtic full-back sent off for a professional foul. 


Whether Celtic were unprepared for Rangers’ willingness to attack or whether they just were not good enough on the day to cope is unclear.  Either way Rangers edged a very competitive contest.  As was evidenced in their 2-0 defeat to Motherwell last month, the key to stopping Celtic is to prevent their full-backs from advancing.  Rangers fielded two attacking wide players throughout, who not only pinned them back by playing high up the pitch, but also tracked back and denied them possession in dangerous areas.

One other key factor to the Rangers victory was the emergence of Weiss from the bench.  He provided the assist for the goal but, more than this, he also had pace and directness when running with the ball that turned the game Rangers’ way when the game became stretched.

Celtic weren’t terrible but too many players underperformed.  Commons, Hooper, Kayal, Ledley and Brown were all quieter than usual whereas their Rangers counterparts won their individual battles and contributed to a deserved cup win.

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