Celtic took a big step towards the Cinch Premiership title with a thrilling 1-1 draw against old firm rivals Rangers at Parkhead.
The Light Blues, who were beaten 1-0 by RB Leipzig in the first leg of their Europa League semifinals in Germany on Thursday night, started positively but in the 20th minute Portuguese attacker Jota fired past Gers goalkeeper Allan McGregor from close range .
Striker Fashion Sakala equalized with a powerful shot in the 68th minute but the tie keeps Rangers six points behind the Hoops with just three games left – and with Celtic having a superior 19 goal difference it would need a remarkable and unlikely turnaround to retain the title at Ibrox.
With such an important second leg against the German side looming and the league title almost a lost hope, there had been speculation about Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s squad selection – but the Dutchman opted for a strong squad.
Midfielders Steven Davis and Scott Arfield and Sakala replaced Ryan Jack, Glen Kamara and Scott Wright, with Joe Aribo as the most central forward.
Celtic boss Ange Postecoglou retained the same squad that started in Ross County’s 2-0 win last week, with Japan international Kyogo Furuhashi once again giving preference to Greek striker Giorgos Giakoumakis.
Only around 700 Rangers fans were allowed inside the 60,000-seat stadium, which was drowned out by an expectant home support watching the Ibrox side get off to the better start.
In the 12th minute, Ryan Kent fired a cross from captain James Tavernier wide of the post from 12 yards out when he should have at least tested hoops keeper Joe Hart, who then had to deal with a solid long-range shot from the attacker.
The home crowd vented their frustration, but that soon turned to jubilation when Jota, on loan from Benfica, escaped from Gers defender Borna Barisic and headed in a cross from Daizen Maeda.
In the 31st minute, after Arfield had conceded possession, Jota headed a cross from midfielder Reo Hatate over the bar.
The Govan men worked their way back into the game but Celtic should have extended their lead. The unmarked Furuhashi hooked a shot over the bar after a move from offside following a cross from Maeda, who then headed wide of the post and only McGregor could beat.
Rangers got off to a promising start to the second half and defender Connor Goldson shot over the bar from a James Tavernier corner before Maeda hastily fired a shot over the goal and another good chance wasted at the other end.
Postecoglou made a triple substitution after the hour, with Giakoumakis, Tom Rogic and Nir Bitton replacing Furuhashi, Hatate and Matthew O’Riley.
At Rangers Davis was replaced by Ryan Jack, Wright came on for Aribo and four minutes later the visitors were level when Sakala linked with Kent before firing a low drive past Hart at his near post.
The Celtic keeper perhaps should have done better but then deflected a powerful shot from the Zambian international international over the bar and Sakala headed the ensuing corner over the bar.
The game progressed at a rapid pace from end to end.
In the 74th minute, a Celtic penalty when Rogic’s cross hit John Lundstram was ignored by referee John Beaton before Liel Abada replaced Maeda.
It was a frantic finale in which Rangers gave everything they needed to win the victory they needed to keep their tenuous title hopes alive.
Hart then made a great save from Arfield before collecting Jack’s shot from the rebound and then Sakala hit the post after being put through by Arfield.
The Gers midfielder was replaced by Amad Diallo, who was immediately cautioned for tripping Abada on a counterattack – the Israel winger then put the ball in well before that, flagged for offside.
The final whistle ended a vibrant encounter that saw Celtic almost champions.
https://www.independent.ie/sport/soccer/celtic-maintain-advantage-in-title-race-as-rangers-battle-back-to-claim-old-firm-derby-draw-41605303.html Celtic maintain their lead in the title race as Rangers battle for a tie in the Old Firm derby