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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Louise Taylor at Ibrox Stadium

Matondo rescues Rangers with last-gasp equaliser in six-goal Old Firm thriller

Rabbi Matondo sparks wild scenes with his injury-time equaliser at Ibrox
Rabbi Matondo sparks wild scenes with his injury-time equaliser at Ibrox. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images/Reuters

The tightest Scottish title race in more than a decade remains far too close to call after Rangers staged a potentially season defining comeback.

An initially unlikely draw leaves Brendan Rodgers’s Celtic one point ahead at the top of the table but, perhaps crucially, Philippe Clement’s side have a game in hand. Moreover, the Belgian arguably gained a psychological advantage after using his substitutes to restorative effect as, in the course of an extraordinary second half, he dented Rodgers’s formidable reputation as Glasgow’s tactical king.

Clement has certainly transformed Rangers’ fortunes since succeeding Michael Beale in October, winning 19 league games, but, in the first half, his team fell 2-0 behind after being outwitted by the former Liverpool and Leicester manager’s intelligent choreography.

If, for much of the afternoon, Celtic’s coach showed precisely why he had won 80% of his previous Old Firm fixtures, by the end it was clear he has met a formidable rival.

“We’re more the winners,” said Clement. “We showed we deserve to be where we are. It’s a tough challenge but we’re in the form of champions. It’s good for Scottish football to have two teams of this quality.”

Rodgers was sanguine. “We’re disappointed not to win but everything’s in our hands,” he said. “We played with quality and heart and made the crowd really edgy.”

One weekend headline had described Celtic’s opinion-splitting manager as “the wrong man in the wrong movie” but he swiftly slipped into leading man mode.

Twenty-one seconds had elapsed when James Tavernier hesitated momentarily in the face of Joe Hart’s long kick upfield and directed a clearance straight at the onrushing Daizen Maeda, who watched in delight as it ricocheted off his right shin and flew into the net from 20 yards. Maybe Tavernier had forgotten about the impressive Maeda’s rapid change of pace or perhaps he failed to realise he was being closed down by the Japan winger until it was too late for a wrongfooted, stranded and blameless Jack Butland to ­salvage the situation.

Butland has kept so many clean sheets for Clement’s side that Gareth Southgate was at Ibrox to watch the 31-year-old. The former England keeper had ample scope to show off his reflexes and composure amid the capriciously swirling winds, on the second day of Storm Kathleen.

Not that Butland seemed remotely fazed as he brilliantly fingertipped Matt O’Riley’s header to safety. O’Riley exerted revenge, expertly converting a penalty awarded for a handball against Connor Goldson after a VAR review.

The outwardly nonchalant scorer waited for Butland to commit before aiming his kick straight down the middle. The absence of any visiting fans – barred on security grounds – ensured Celtic celebrated against a backdrop of silence but it did not take long for the mutterings of discontent to become audible. A key area of concern centred on Maeda’s tormenting of Tavernier.

With Celtic controlling midfield courtesy of much intelligent passing, movement and carefully calibrated pressing, it was so one-sided that Hart looked pleased to remind Southgate he once played for England too by superbly denying Fábio Silva.

The tumble-prone Silva was booked for collapsing far too easily in the area after fleeting contact from Alastair Johnston but the referee, John Beaton, changed his mind after a VAR review, pointing to the spot. “I’m disappointed with the penalty,” said Rodgers. “The player simulated, he went over a few times.”

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Tavernier’s day improved immeasurably as he struck the kick cleanly into the top corner and almost immediately Cyriel Dessers had the ball in the net, only for yet another VAR review to lead to that ­“equaliser” being disallowed for a foul in the preamble.

No matter, it was suddenly Celtic’s turn to look rattled as Rangers forced a high-intensity, high-pressing tempo. When the gifted home substitute Abdallah Sima capitalised on Callum McGregor’s awful concession of possession, his shot took a hefty deflection and drew Clement’s side level.

Euphoria reentered the Ibrox air for the two minutes until Adam Idah fooled everyone by shaping to shoot left-footed before directing the ball beneath the diving Butland with his right after Paulo Bernardo’s ­wonderful 88th-minute pass.

The denouement belonged to Rabbi Matondo, whose sublimely curling stoppage-time equaliser arrived after John Lundstram’s pass and Yang Hyun-jun’s defensive error.

It prefaced the eruption of a minor melee after Todd Cantwell shoved McGregor in the chest at the final whistle but the acrimony soon evaporated … unlike an epic title race.

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