CRAIG GORDON’S sentiments ahead of the final meeting of Celtic and Rangers this year should have been a show of strength. In the end it turned out to almost be the kiss of death.

The basic gist of the Celtic goalkeeper’s message was that it didn’t matter what Rangers did, as long as Brendan Rodgers’ players turned up and hit top gear then the result was secure. That’s the thing though. Too many of them just didn’t.

With the exception of March’s 1-1 draw, Celtic have been peerless against their oldest and fiercest rivals. Given they have only lost one domestic game under Rodgers, many fans arrived in Glasgow’s east end in expectation rather than hope of another notch. Along with millions watching at home who had tuned in to watch a game of football, they were left disappointed.

Just a few days after arguably the worst Edinburgh derby ever played, their west coast counterparts played out a 0-0 draw bereft of any real quality. There were two things at the heart of it. Rangers’ doggedness to make life difficult for their opponents, and Celtic’s desire to make things even more difficult for themselves.

During a frustrating 90 minutes the Premiership leaders looked jittery at the back and far too blunt in attack. Indeed, if it wasn’t for Gordon denying James Taverrnier and Alfredo Morelos several times, this may well have been their second loss to a Scottish team this year. Waiting on a bus and all that.

This was Celtic’s 38th competitive game this season and to be honest it showed. Scott Sinclair is a player who appears in dire need to rediscover the form that catapulted to his player of the season status last term, to be fair to him he’s probably not the only one. In a cauldron of frustration, though, he perhaps stirred the angst the most among Celtic’s own. Mikael Lustig and Dedryck Boyata struggled to find their groove at the back, while Moussa Dembele was taken off without causing Wes Foderingham any real issue. Kristoffer Ajer and James Forrest were the shining lights in green and white, but they didn’t have much competition.

On the other half of the divide, Graeme Murty was right to feel pleased with what his group gave him, especially given how they have toiled against the likes of Dundee, Hamilton and St Johnstone in recent weeks.

His squad selection was bold, but given it came from the only man to take anything from Brendan Rodgers in this fixture, it was perhaps unsurprising. Bruno Alves kept his place at centre-half despite the ground he was surely going to have to cover, while the less-than-mobile Niko Kranjcar also retained his spot in the middle of the park following Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Motherwell. Eduardo Herrera was sensibly papped on to the bench to leave Morelos ploughing a lone furrow up front.

And you know what, for the most part it worked. The biggest question concerning Rangers beforehand was would they choose – and be able to – implement the high pressing game used successfully by the like of Hearts and Hibs, or would they attempt to contain their opponents. They started the game very much doing the former, their signal of intent underlined in the first minute as Declan John rampaged forward only to then howf his cross into the stand.

Celtic looked as nervous as a turkey before Christmas at the back, and Rangers sensed the weakness. On five minutes Daniel Candeias’ pressure forced a shaky Mikael Lustig to pass straight to Josh Windass as he burst forward. He then played the ball out for Morelos to shoot from 12 yards on his right foot only to be denied the opener as Gordon got down low to block. A ball across the box from Morelos five minutes later that was just nicked away from the in-rushing Windass enough to make the 50,000 Celtic fans shift uncomfortably in their seats.

From that point on, the SPFL Premiership leaders began to click, even if sporadically. A Dembele flick from a Boyata knock down was scrambled off the line by Wes Foderingham, and the Rangers goalkeeper somehow got a touch on a James Forrest shot which crept inches by the far post on the back of a terrific slalom run through the middle of the Rangers defence.

On 17 minutes Sinclair had the first of his clear chances. A Stuart Armstrong free-kick was nodded towards goal by Dembele, Foderingham doing well to claw off the line but only as far as the Celtic winger. His first tame shot was blocked on the line by Tavernier at the back post, before his second was smothered by the Rangers goalkeeper. A more forceful shot would surely have done the job.

During that exchange, Alves went down in a ruck of bodies and failed to get back up unaided. David Bates replaced him seconds later.

Rangers relented as the first half came to a close as Celtic pushed for an opener, and it really should have come on the stroke of half time. Great interplay between Forrest and Armstrong released the latter to get in behind and play a perfect ball to Sinclair across the six-yard line. With the goal at his mercy, only he will know how he managed to pull his shot wide at the near post.

A resurgent Rangers, fresh from their half-time pow wow, took to the field once more and came flying out the traps with renewed vigour. Their danger was evident within two minutes through Tavernier, whose spin and volley from a Candeias cross 15 yards out forced Gordon into an acrobatic save to tip over.

The clock soon hit an hour and it was time for Dembele to exit and Leigh Griffiths was introduced to try and hoist Celtic up the park, but Rangers continued to come and knock on the door. On 68 minutes a wonderful whipped ball from Tavernier on the right was perfect for Morelos five yards out, but once again Gordon defied his years to pull off a point-blank save. With 11 minutes to go the pair would combine once more, this time the header from the Colombian glanced wide.

Sinclair was off by this time and Olivier Ntcham introduced, but the race of this match had been run as time drifted away along with the majority of the home support. Celtic will go to Dubai looking for some middle eastern promise, while Rangers will surely step off the plane in Orlando with a spring in their step.