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Jan 3, 2010

Draw favours gritty Gers

If prizes were awarded for reckless bravado, lunging tackles, glaring misses and miscarriages of justice, the Old Firm would be surely be the kings of the world. Whenever the Glasgow behemoths square up, there is invariably sufficient controversy and rancour to fuel a litany of football phone-in programmes and that pattern was repeated during the sides' typically visceral 1-1 encounter at Parkkead.

• Celtic 1-1 Rangers

The fact that the match ended in a draw means that nothing has changed in the SPL championship race - Rangers continue to boast a seven-point advantage, albeit having played a game more - but the bottom line is that Walter Smith will be much the happier of the two managers after watching his men achieve parity, through a combination of excellent defending, dubious officiating, the brilliance of his goalkeeper, Allan McGregor, and the profligacy of the home strikers.

In the end, this performance was a far cry from the heroics which have earned the Ibrox men a barrel-load of goals in the past month, but Smith will accept the outcome with both hands. After all, having lost the services, for a variety of reasons, of such luminaries as Kenny Miller, Madjid Bougherra and DaMarcus Beasley, Smith was forced to field a patched-up team, which only created one genuine opportunity in the entire 90 minutes.

On that basis, Lee McCulloch's equaliser wasn't simply a valuable riposte to Scott McDonald's opening goal: it was the football equivalent of a get-out-of-jail-free card for the understrength visitors, who were stretched close to breaking point by their traditional rivals, especially in the first 45 minutes. But they clung on by their fingertips at the end, quite literally as a consequence of McGregor's breathtaking save to deny Georgios Samaras.

Tony Mowbray, on the other hand, must be rueing another illustration of his players' inability to translate territorial advantage and possession into the currency of goals. Yes, he was entitled to feel aggrieved by Kyle Lafferty's dreadful tackle on Andreas Hinkel - which was much more a straight red card than Miller's offence against Darren Dods last Wednesday - and there are other referees in Scotland who would not have ruled out Marc-Antoine Fortune's effort, instead adjudging that a goalkeeper has arms with which to defend himself.

But these bones of contention shouldn't be allowed to gloss over the bigger picture: that his Celtic team resembles some of those from the mid-1990s, who gained plaudits for their pretty football without winning any trophies.

It hardly helped Mowbray's cause that McDonald should emerge from the bench to break the deadlock, just as has happened in several previous outings this season. The Australian striker is occasionally pilloried by opposing supporters for his perceived lack of fitness, and yet he is blessed with the priceless knack of creating space, spooking defenders and conjuring up goals from unlikely sources.

It should mean that he is an automatic selection for these Old Firm derbies, where chances are habitually at a premium. It may be the case that Mowbray, having shelled out nearly £4 million to sign Fortune, is under pressure to field the latter, but there have been precious few indications thus far that his expensive recruit - at least in Scottish terms - is anything special. In which light, if the rumour mill is correct and McDonald is destined for the exit door at Celtic, it could prove another wrong move as the Bhoys strive to regain the SPL crown.

Over the piece, of course, the title race remains compellingly tight. But - and it is a big but - the reality is that Smith has made the best of an average squad, has stiffened his charges' sinews in situations where they might have crumbled two years ago and, even when Kris Boyd contributed little to the proceedings, beyond getting himself cautioned for an intemperate challenge, McCulloch, so valuable in recent fixtures, popped up at exactly the right time.

Celtic, by comparison, continued to look porous in defence and, despite another wonderfully dextrous showing from will-o'-the-wisp Aiden McGeady, the midfielder fluffed his lines by blasting over the bar in the second half.

That incident could almost have served as a microcosm of the Bhoys' season to date: myriad hints of promise and glimmers of sumptuous skill dashed by a dearth of killer instinct.

Ultimately, as Smith, the veteran of scores of these Old Firm ordeals, can testify, substance matters a lot more than style on the ledger sheet. His personnel were buffeted, bothered and bewildered for much of the contest, but, exemplifying the grit which steered them to a European final in Manchester 20 months ago, they found a means of clawing themselves out of trouble.

That they should do so principally through the labours of McCulloch, Steven Davis, Sasa Papac and McGregor was a reminder of how Smith has forged a team in his own image. It might not be pretty, or aesthetically pleasing for neutrals, but Sunday's priority was the result, not the entertainment value.

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