ON THIS DAY in 2016, Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic faced Rangers in the League Cup semi-final at Hampden. Here is an extract from the wonderful ‘Invincible’ by Matt Corr, detailing that win and the drama that would unfold at the National Stadium.
Moussa Dembele was again on the mark in the 87th minute the following weekend, after the disappointing home defeat by Borussia Monchengladbach. This goal was more significant, paving the way to a first major final for Brendan Rodgers. The occasion was the League Cup semi-final against the phoenix club from Ibrox, Rangers, on Sunday, 23 October 2016, just six months after the shootout heartbreak at the same stage of the Scottish Cup, an outcome which led to Brendan Rodgers arriving at Celtic Park just a few weeks later.
Mark Warburton’s promoted side had won their qualifying group, consisting of top seeds Motherwell and lower-League fodder Stranraer, Annan Athletic and East Stirlingshire. They had also managed to avoid any of the top-flight sides in the two knockout stages, enjoying 5-0 home wins against both Peterhead and Queen of the South. If Carlsberg did cup routes…
Today would be different, champions Celtic the opposition, six weeks after the 5-1 humiliation they had inflicted at Parkhead. Rodgers made one change from his midweek line-up, Jozo Simunovic again stepping in for Kolo Toure, after the big Ivorian’s personal night to forget against the German club.
A 51,000 crowd saw a game as one-sided as many pundits had predicted and as I’d dared hope, albeit with a number of comparisons to that horrible day back in April. The first of those occurred early on, goalkeeper Matt Gilks playing the ball straight to Tom Rogic in front of goal, following a nervous pass-back from Jason Holt. However, just as Patrick Roberts had fluffed his lines following Leigh Griffiths’ effort rebounding to him from a post, so this time the big Australian seemed to be taken by surprise, the ball sticking between his feet and the opportunity, agonisingly, lost, with only a tap-in required.
Rogic had gone close even earlier, following good work by Scott Sinclair, the Wizard’s effort deflected over the Rangers keeper but just clearing the bar. The other main goalmouth action of the first half had also involved Sinclair, just seconds after Barrie McKay had been booked for simulation in the Celtic penalty area. A lovely pass from Dembele put the Englishman through one-on-one with Gilks, the Celt’s shot then hitting the goalkeeper’s outstretched leg to run harmlessly clear of the far post.
Early in the second half, we had another deja-vu moment, as Erik Sviatchenko rose majestically to power a header into the net. Incredibly, referee Craig Thomson disallowed the goal for a non-existent foul on Clint Hill. As debatable Hampden decisions against Celtic over the years go, this one was right up there with the best. The honest mistake was almost compounded within a minute, only a desperate block from Simunovic preventing Holt from given the newly-promoted side a shock lead.
The third action replay happened towards the end of the game. Sinclair stepped up to curl a delicious free-kick over the wall and past the keeper, however, just as with the Griffiths’ effort that fateful April day, the ball clipped the same part of the crossbar, hitting Gilks’ hand before dropping down behind the stranded stopper, who gratefully grabbed it before any Celtic player could pounce.
The match-winning strike finally arrived just moments later, and it was worth the wait. Substitute Griffiths, on for Rogic in the 70th minute as Brendan Rodgers went all-out for a goal, did superbly well to hold off Lee Wallace down the right flank before playing a lovely ball into the path of the onrushing Dembele with the outside of his left boot. The big Frenchman then improvised beautifully, flicking the ball from behind him through the legs of both Rob Tierney and the goalkeeper Gilks to win the match for Celtic.
There were joyous scenes as the players ran into the corner to be engulfed by the delirious Hoops support. There was another glorious chance to secure victory just before the end, Griffiths sent scampering through after another defence-splitting pass. For once, the lethal hitman hesitated, his attempted lob being blocked by the impressive Gilks. Seconds later it was all over.