Celtic took a large step towards clinching the cinch Premiership title with an absorbing 1-1 draw against Old Firm rivals Rangers at Parkhead.
The Light Blues, beaten 1-0 by RB Leipzig in the primary leg of their Europa League semi-final in Germany on Thursday night, began positively but within the twentieth minute Portuguese attacker Jota volleyed past Gers goalkeeper Allan McGregor from close range.
Striker Fashion Sakala levelled within the 68th minute with a strong drive however the draw keeps Rangers six points behind the Hoops with only three fixtures remaining – and with Celtic having a superior goal difference of 19 it might take a notable and unlikely turnaround to maintain the title at Ibrox.
Celtic and Rangers drew 1-1 within the Old Firm derby to maintain the Premiership title race alive
Jota (pictured) opened the scoring from close range for Celtic within the twenty first minute of the match
Fashion Sakala (pictured) levelled the rating for the Rangers within the 67th minute of the derby
With such a crucial second leg against the German side looming, and the league title almost a forlorn hope, there had been speculation around Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s team selection – however the Dutchman selected a powerful side.
Midfielder Steven Davis and Scott Arfield and Sakala replaced Ryan Jack, Glen Kamara and Scott Wright, with Joe Aribo essentially the most central striker.
Celtic boss Ange Postecoglou kept the identical side which began the 2-0 win at Ross County last week, with Japan international Kyogo Furuhashi again preferred to Greek striker Giorgos Giakoumakis.
Celtic boss Ange Postecoglou kept the identical side which began the 2-0 win at Ross County
Joe Aribo of Rangers contends with Celtic defender Cameron Carter-Vickers for the ball
There have been only around 700 Rangers fans allowed contained in the 60,000-capacity stadium, drowned out by an expectant home support who watched the Ibrox side make the higher start.
Within the twelfth minute Ryan Kent volleyed a cross from captain James Tavernier past the post from 12 yards when he must have a minimum of tested Hoops keeper Joe Hart, who then needed to take care of an honest long-range drive from the attacker.
The house crowd vented frustration at their side but that soon turned to cheers when Jota, on loan from Benfica, got away from Gers defender Borna Barisic and knocked in a cross from Daizen Maeda.
Within the thirty first 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 sport but Celtic must have added to their lead.
Greg Taylor (right) and Daizen Maeda (left) have fun Celtic team-mate Jota’s opening goal
Anthony Ralston of Celtic (pictured, left) is challenged by Rangers Borna Barisic (right)
Unmarked Furuhashi, from an offside move, hooked a shot over the bar from a cross from Maeda, who then headed past the post with only McGregor to beat.
Rangers began the second half with promise and defender Connor Goldson blasted over the bar following a James Tavernier corner, before Maeda unexpectedly flashed a shot over, one other good likelihood wasted at the opposite end.
Postecoglou made a triple substitution on the hour mark with Giakoumakis, Tom Rogic and Nir Bitton replacing Furuhashi, Hatate and Matthew O’Riley.
For Rangers, Davis was replaced by Ryan Jack, with Wright on for Aribo, and 4 minutes later the visitors were level when Sakala combined with Kent before rifling a low drive past Hart at his near post.
Rangers midfielder Steve Davis battles for the ball with Celtic’s Reo Hatate within the derby
The Celtic keeper perhaps must have done higher but he then tipped a strong drive from the Zambia international over the bar, with Sakala then heading the following corner over.
The sport went from end to finish at a ferocious pace.
Within the 74the minute a Celtic penalty claim when Rogic’s cross struck John Lundstram was ignored by referee John Beaton, before Liel Abada replaced Maeda.
It was a frantic finish with Rangers going all out for the win they needed to maintain their slim title hopes alive.
Hart then made a terrific save from Arfield before gathering Jack’s shot from the rebound after which Sakala struck the post after being put through by Arfield.
The Gers midfielder was replaced by Amad Diallo, who was immediately booked for bringing down Abada as he broke on a counter – the Israeli winger then putting the ball in the web with the flag up for offside well beforehand.
The ultimate whistle ended a pulsating encounter, with Celtic all but champions.