Fashion Sakala strikes a late equalizer for The Gers in Old Firm derby to keep title chances alive

On the opening day of the season, no one offered Celtic much hope of winning the league when they lost to Hearts at Tynecastle. Beat the same opponents in Glasgow next weekend and the Parkhead side will effectively, if not yet arithmetically, be champions of Scotland with two games to spare.

The final mile of a marathon is always the hardest. With a six point and 19 goal advantage, victory over Rangers would pretty much have finished it.

And, after Jota’s 21st minute strike, Glasgow’s east end looked destined to end the night bathed in green and white – with a likely place in the group stages of next season’s Champions League in the bag.

Celtic and Rangers drew 1-1 in the Old Firm derby to keep the Premiership title race alive

Celtic and Rangers drew 1-1 in the Old Firm derby to keep the Premiership title race alive

Jota (pictured) opened the scoring from close range for Celtic in the 21st minute of the match

Jota (pictured) opened the scoring from close range for Celtic in the 21st minute of the match

Fashion Sakala (pictured) leveled the score for the Rangers in the 67th minute of the derby

Kudos to Rangers, then, for posting the seed of doubt in Celtic minds. Defying the exertions of a midweek trip to Germany for their Europa League semi-final against RB Leipzig, a first Old Firm goal from Fashion Sakala dragged last season’s champions level after 67 minutes.

The visitors knew nothing less than a win would suffice. And, with Parkhead a seething mass of nerves, it took a brilliant save from Joe Hart to deny Scott Arfield from close range. Moments later, the Sakala goalscorer was one-on-one with the former England keeper and smashed the ball against the base of the post. He should have scored.

The final whistle allowed the Celtic support to breathe again. With three games to play, against Hearts, Dundee United and Motherwell – two at home – their team will be crowned champions soon enough.

Celtic boss Ange Postecoglou kept the same side which started the 2-0 win at Ross County

Celtic boss Ange Postecoglou kept the same side which started the 2-0 win at Ross County

Joe Aribo of Rangers contends with Celtic defender Cameron Carter-Vickers for the ball

Joe Aribo of Rangers contends with Celtic defender Cameron Carter-Vickers for the ball

As in their Hampden defeat to Rangers in the Scottish Cup semi-final, however, a failure to kill the game with a second goal delayed the coronation by a week or two. When they lost three of their opening six league games under Ange Postecoglou, they’d have taken that.

After a game they controlled for long periods, Giovanni van Bronckhorst and his Rangers players must wonder how they ever allowed the title race to come to a pass like this.

On December 1, the Ibrox side beat Hibs at Easter Road to stretch seven points clear at the summit of the Premiership. The margin lasted just 24 hours and failed to stand the test of time. When play resumed after the winter break, the Ibrox side led by six and, in a repeat of Steven Gerrard’s first two seasons, stuttered badly. Despite the potent weaponry at their disposal, they fired the bullets into their own feet, dropping points to Celtic, Aberdeen, Motherwell, Dundee United and Ross County.

In contrast, Celtic recovered from a sticky start by racking up an unbeaten stretch of 29 games since September. They entered this game on a run of 11 Premiership victories-in-a-row on home soil. And while the failure to stretch that run to 12 was disappointing, neither should it be deemed a disaster.

Greg Taylor (right) and Daizen Maeda (left) celebrate Celtic team-mate Jota's opening goal

Greg Taylor (right) and Daizen Maeda (left) celebrate Celtic team-mate Jota’s opening goal

If the Rangers were going down they were going down fighting. And, despite a second leg against Leipzig at Ibrox on Thursday the big hitters were all present and correct here.

Until Celtic scored with their first real crack at goal, this felt like a different game to the last Rangers visit to Parkhead when visitors were 3-0 down at half-time. Liel Abada sent Parkhead into raptures that night when he capitalized on the ponderous back post defending of Borna Barisic. And, just as frustration began to grow in the stands, Celtic pulled off the same trick this time as well.

With 21 minutes played, the tireless Daizen Maeda drove into the Rangers area on the left side beyond Connor Goldson. Thumping his cross first time into the mixer, Jota performed the old Abada trick by timing his run perfectly to get in ahead of Croatian international Barisic and turning the ball into the net.

To fall asleep once at Parkhead is human. By now the Rangers left-back was beginning to look careless.

Celtic tried to repeat the trick from February by ramping up the pressure before half-time.

A leggy Reo Hatate picked out Jota for a sprawling header in the area, the effort flying over the bar.

Anthony Ralston of Celtic (pictured, left) is challenged by Rangers Borna Barisic (right)

Anthony Ralston of Celtic (pictured, left) is challenged by Rangers Borna Barisic (right)

Inside 60 seconds the champions-elect had two brilliant opportunities. The first saw Maeda pose more danger on the left side when he sprang the offside, another driven cross thumped over the bar by Kyogo Furuhashi as he leaned back. Even if the flag had gone up for a suspected offside, the Japanese striker didn’t know that. Within seconds, Maeda had the chance for his second himself, going for a Jota cross at the back post with a lack of conviction. A little more bravery and Celtic would have had clear blue skies at the interval.

Rangers could take solace from the fact the game was still alive. Before Celtic’s opening goal, Ryan Kent blew a wonderful chance to ramp up the title anxiety after 13 minutes when he turned a James Tavernier cross inches past the post. The question for Rangers was clear. With no Alfredo Morelos or Kemar Roofe, where would the goals come from to give Celtic a wobble?

The home side blew another glorious chance to douse the fire after 55 minutes. Presented with a clear shooting chance from the penalty spot, Maeda had to hit the target instead of blazing over. There was always a chance that Celtic would regret their wastefulness in front of goal. Rangers, once again, looked fitter and stronger.

With an hour played, Ange Postecoglou moved. Tom Rogic and Nir Bitton replaced Hatate and Matt O’Riley. Giorgos Giakoumakis, meanwhile, replaced Kyogo in attack.

Van Bronckhorst also pressed Ryan Jack and Scott Wright into action in place of Steven Davis and Joe Aribo.

The changes had the more immediate impact on Rangers. Sakala hasn’t convinced everyone of his talents as a Rangers striker. There can be no quibbling with the quality of the finish which dragged the visitors level after 67 minutes.

Rangers midfielder Steve Davis battles for the ball with Celtic's Reo Hatate in the derby

Rangers midfielder Steve Davis battles for the ball with Celtic’s Reo Hatate in the derby

The Zambian international zipped a superb finish low into the net past Joe Hart at his near post from an acute angle. Debate will center on whether Hart should lose a goal at his near post at all. Either way, Rangers were level.

Suddenly Rangers were the team more likely to claim the winner. From offering nothing all game, Sakala was now in the mood, outmuscling Cameron Carter-Vickers to salvage an under-hit pass from John Lundstram and thunder a rising shot on target. This time Hart dealt with it.

Celtic seemed almost paralyzed by nerves in the final stages. Moments after he almost stumbled over the ball under pressure from Sakala, Joe Hart produced a wonderful save from Arfield from a Wright cut-back.

Sakala will feel he should have won it when he smacked a low shot against the inside of the upright, the ball bouncing to safety.

Titles are rarely won smoothly without pain. This was a day when Celtic spent it.

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