To use the most hackneyed phrase of all, Ibrox witnessed an advertisement for the Celtic v Rangers derby yesterday. Everyone had feared the worst but -- at least at the game itself -- there was nothing to disgrace Easter Sunday.
Walter Smith, the Rangers manager, had expected he would take no pleasure from his 56th and final Old Firm game but in the end he could, although Neil Lennon, his Celtic counterpart, was able to derive more. The destination of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League trophy remains unresolved and Rangers are still at the top of the table. Even if they didn’t lose the match, though, they lost the initiative.
They cannot now win the league without relying on Celtic to drop points in their remaining five games. Close to the end there was a moment of enormous drama and significance in the game and the entire season when Allan McGregor saved Georgios Samaras’ penalty. It was raw theatre, as if the pair of them were juggling the league trophy itself.
It will take another few weeks to determine the full significance of what McGregor did seven minutes from the end of a pulsating second half but if Rangers win the title, that will be the moment to which they trace it back. Making a huge penalty call near the end of a goalless title decider was a brave decision by referee Craig Thomson, but also the wrong one.
Anthony Stokes had nicked the ball away to Kris Commons before running squarely into Steven Davis. Thomson thought it a penalty. Most of those inside Ibrox were aghast at the decision. Samaras lined up to score from 12 yards -- as he had here on January 2 -- but this time McGregor was a match for him and produced an excellent save. There was bedlam in the stands, so who knows if Thomson uttered a little sigh of relief that his decision hadn’t been pivotal.
If that was the moment when Celtic could have won the match, Rangers’ came six minutes into the second half when Gregg Wylde flung a cross to the near post and Kyle Lafferty raced in and stooped to connect with a header. A bad miss.
Rangers had the best of the first half and exerted more pressure early in the second but they failed to work Fraser Forster in the Celtic goal. There was not a single shot on target to worry him. A great Davis ball to Nikica Jelavic might have brought a first half goal but Forster did well to reach it first.
The draw was about right. Neither side really clicked and the players were let down by poor passing and decision-making, even if that was forgivable given the high stakes and the intensity of the occasion. The home side had much of the possession but McGregor -- keeping a clean sheet against Celtic for the first time this season -- was man-of-the-match. He leapt to push away a Daniel Majstorovic header and threw up his arm again to tip over a cute attempt to score by Emilio Izaguirre.
Celtic were more convincing than Rangers in the final third but it was a day when the defenders were a more than a match for the forwards. Gary Hooper was poor for a second consecutive derby and Samaras was involved in a prolonged duel with David Weir and will have to live with failing to put his penalty away.
Lafferty fluffed his one chance and Jelavic didn’t like being pushed around by Majstorovic and Charlie Mulgrew. Jelavic’s best moment was a backheel which put Steven Naismith through to shoot wide. Weir could have scored at a corner but headed over. In midfield, Maurice Edu would have had a happier day if he’d stayed at home. Commons was on the bench because Lennon wanted more height in the side but Celtic’s best spell coincided with his introduction in the 55th minute.
Referee Thomson had two big first-half calls to make: should Celtic get a penalty and should Samaras be sent-off for raising his hands to shove Weir to the ground? The penalty claim was correctly waved away -- Joe Ledley ran straight into Steven Whittaker at the edge of the box. As for the judgement on Samaras, Thompson had spotted that Weir had shoved him first. Sensibly, both were only booked.
By the time the day was over, the referee had reached two different decisions on effectively the same incident. He didn’t give a penalty for Whittaker running into Ledley but did give one for Stokes running into Davis. Stokes tried to get another penalty in the 90th minute but saw yellow for his dive.
All of it unfolded at the usual absurd and breathless tempo. Throughout the encounter, the two sets of fans were in their own worlds: periodically erupting into one song or another and trying to drown out the other lot. The stands bounced, and for once it seemed to be nearly all about celebrating their own team rather than directing abuse at the other.
Neither side landed the knockout blow they all craved. However, don’t be fooled by an unchanged league table. Celtic took a major step forward here.