HE’S been doubted of late. Criticised even by a section of his own team’s fans. Thought by some to be a fading midfield force. But when it really mattered, and when Celtic really needed him, Callum McGregor stood up and was counted.

After a stuttering start to the season as a collective, with key personnel injured and two of the main pillars upon which last season’s treble success was built having been sold in Carl Starfelt and Jota, Celtic looked to be limping into the Ibrox bear pit ripe for a mauling.

Instead, they served notice on their city rivals that they are not the depleted force that many would have had you believe, and no one thumbed their nose at their critics in more emphatic style than their captain.

McGregor was imperious. He broke up play. He found space. He got on the ball. And he dictated the game, particularly in the first half.

Such was his influence that Rangers manager Michael Beale eventually sacrificed some of Kemar Roofe’s attacking threat to pin the attacker to Celtic’s fulcrum, but he couldn’t stop McGregor from bossing the middle of the pitch.

Anyone doubting McGregor’s quality only had to witness his pass inside Dujon Sterling to set Liel Abada away in the first half to know their folly, a move that should have ended in a Celtic goal but for some uncharacteristically sloppy finishing from Kyogo Furuhashi.

The striker was another who would prove his point eventually though, passing up another glorious chance before eventually slamming home the hardest of the three first half opportunities he had to put Celtic ahead.

But it was McGregor who the Celtic players looked to for the example of how to keep their head when all around Ibrox were losing theirs. Time and again he was motioning to his teammates to calm down and keep their cool. And no one needed that reassurance more than Gustaf Lagebielke after a rocky opening 45 minutes from the rookie defender.

The Swede got away with one as he dithered on the ball and Cyriel Dessers pinched it from him to set up Roofe to score, but VAR rode to his rescue, referee Don Robertson eventually awarding a foul after reflecting on the replay.

Soon after, Lagerbielke horribly misjudged a long ball, getting caught under its flight and allowing it to bounce through to Dessers, but much to his and Celtic’s relief the ball carried through to Joe Hart. That prompted a talking to from McGregor to his teammate, and in fairness to the 23-year-old, he was much better from there on in, standing up to the pressure Rangers exerted around the Celtic area for much of the second half.

When Rangers did get through, goalkeeper Hart was another who stood tall. It seemed that this was a day for some of the Celtic stalwarts of the last couple of years to show that their mojo didn’t desert them when Ange Postecoglou deserted the club in the summer for Tottenham Hotspur.

There were two massive chances for Rangers to equalise. With the first, Hart didn’t even have to touch the ball to make his presence felt, spreading himself brilliantly at the feet of substitute Sam Lammers and doing enough to put him off his eventual finish into the side netting.

Then, when Danilo beat the offside trap and bore down on goal, the 36-year-old was again sharp off his line to close the angle, and this time he made a crucial block.

That Celtic somehow managed to emerge from Ibrox with a clean sheet with such a makeshift centre-back partnership is of course partly down to the blunt Rangers attack, but due credit must go to both Lagerbielke and Liam Scales, as well as Hart for marshalling them through the 90 minutes.

In front of them though, it was McGregor who had marshalled his team as a whole throughout the contest. The victory was a vindication of both his own staying power and the remarkable standards that he sets for himself year in, year out.

For manager Brendan Rodgers too, this was the first real statement he has made since his return to the club. He got his tactics spot on, taking the sting out of the occasion with possession-based football and setting his team up to carry a threat on the counter. With a bit more care, they could have added at least one more goal.

Perhaps this was also the first step towards Rodgers regaining his place in the affections of the Celtic support. As for McGregor, there may have been a little bit of a tiff of late with the support, but you sense they will never really lose their love for their inspirational skipper. And especially not when he is still capable of turning in performances like this, and helping his team to yet another statement result at the home of their greatest rivals.

At the final whistle, he punched the air, and he has helped Celtic to land a hefty blow on Rangers even this early in the season.