Rangers 0-1 Celtic: Houdinis in Hoops prolong Alfredo Morelos' Old Firm torment

Rangers' Alfredo Morelos fires wide of Celtic's Fraser Forster
Alfredo Morelos was unable to beat inspired Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster

When Ryan Jack buried his head in the embrace of his manager, Steven Gerrard, in the aftermath of Sunday's League Cup final at Hampden, he might have been able to shut out the sight of Celtic in raptures - but not the sound.

The din will ring in his ears, and in the ears of many, for quite some time. All losing finalists experience disappointment, but this went beyond that. It was a dejection borne out of the most painful of missed opportunities, the new gold standard in defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory.

Celtic played so far beneath themselves it wasn't true, but still they wore winners' smiles. Houdinis in Hoops. They have now won 31 straight cup ties, scoring 96 goals and conceding only nine, none of them to Rangers, who've had four cracks at them over the last four seasons.

In 47 hours of cup football, Celtic have trailed for a total of 47 minutes. That's a statistic to ponder.

We went to Hampden on Sunday thinking that Rangers were going to have to deliver something a bit special to beat them, but in the end, they didn't need to be special, they just needed to be accurate - and they weren't. And, as much as the focus deserves to be on Neil Lennon and his team and their 10th straight domestic trophy, most of the drama lay in Rangers' plight rather than in Celtic's plunder.

Alfredo Morelos was the centrepiece of all it. Morelos and his brilliant tormentor, Fraser Forster.

Morelos has something of a back story in this fixture. In the Old Firm derby of December 2017, he missed two point-blank headers in a 0-0 draw, one saved by Craig Gordon, the other directed wide. It was the young Colombian's second time playing against Celtic and, if little enough was made of his lack of ruthlessness then, soon enough it started to became a theme that must be just about frying his brain right now.

Rangers midfielder Ryan Jack is consoled by manager Steven Gerrard
Rangers midfielder Ryan Jack had to be consoled by manager Steven Gerrard

Three months later, in the dying seconds of a Scottish Premiership game at Ibrox, Morelos had a chance to make it 3-3 from two yards but somehow managed to hit a post. Four weeks later, he spurned two more excellent chances in a Scottish Cup semi-final that Celtic strolled 4-0. It's hard to know for sure when all of this became a problem for him, but his baptism was rough, that's for sure.

In December 2018, he should have been red-carded in Rangers' 1-0 win at Ibrox. In March 2019, he was red-carded in a 2-1 defeat at Celtic Park. Steven Gerrard didn't start him in the next two Old Firm games, which takes us to Sunday and an epic final at Hampden.

It was Morelos' 11th time facing Celtic and his 11th blank. He's played 734 minutes (12.23 hours) and still hasn't scored despite displaying a predator's touch against nearly every other team he's played against this season.

Going into Sunday's final, Morelos was on fire. He'd scored 25 goals in 30 games. He'd scored the goal that put Rangers into the Europa League group stage. He'd scored against Feyenoord, Porto, Young Boys, Legia Warsaw and Midtjylland. He'd scored home and away, with his feet and with his head. Domestically, he'd scored the decisive goal against Livingston, St Johnstone, Ross County and Hearts. He'd struck in nine of his 13 games in Europe.

It wasn't just his threat up front that had improved, it was his temperament. Markedly so. In his 30 games leading up to the remarkable events of Hampden, Morelos had picked up just six yellow cards in the whole season. At the same stage of last season, he was sitting on three red cards and 12 yellows. A reformed character.

Celtic's Christopher Jullien celebrates his winning goal
Christopher Jullien scored the winner with Celtic's only attempt on target

Then along came Celtic and away went all of the things that made Morelos so formidable. His clinical touch? Gone. His newfound maturity? Also gone. He was fortunate not to see red again.

When it comes to Morelos and what ails him in this fixture, we all tend to play the amateur psychologist. Nobody outside Ibrox knows for sure if he's got a mental block about playing Celtic, but it certainly looks like it, perhaps dating back to those early misses. There were already a lot of bad memories there - and there are a lot more of them there now.

If anybody knows the mind of a striker, then it's Ally McCoist and so it was instructive to hear one of the greats talking about Morelos's vibe when taking his penalty at Hampden. "That split-second before he hits it, you can see he just doesn't believe," McCoist said. That's exactly what he looked like. Willing but unconvincing. Forster had broken his heart by then.

Celtic historians would have to go into private session to figure out when was the last time they were dominated to this extent at Hampden and yet came out victorious. They were routed for an hour. Only various parts of Forster's giant anatomy kept them in it. That and Morelos' inability to compose himself when faced with that anatomy.

Of course they were victims of desperate officiating for Celtic's offside winner, but such was their control of the game and their accumulation of chances, they should have been out of sight. They should have had a buffer of goals built that would have rendered refereeing errors irrelevant. They got wasteful and they got suckered. Football has its own way of dispensing justice sometimes.

Celtic captain Scott Brown and manager Neil Lennon with the League Cup trophy
Celtic and captain Scott Brown have now won four League Cup finals in a row

Celtic have inflicted different kinds of agony on Rangers in their run of 10 straight trophies, but this was a new one. They played poorly and won. They got a man sent off and won. They had a single attempt on target in more than 90 minutes and won. For once, Celtic didn't turn up in a domestic final, got battered and still went home with the trophy.

Their supporters can now afford to take a pleasure in how poor they were because they know that Rangers folk will be tormented with thoughts of what should-have-been and what never-was. One fan's angst is another fan's ecstasy. Nowhere in world football is that more applicable than in Glasgow.

This was Rangers' golden chance to end Celtic's winning run, a rare and gilt-edged opportunity to put one on them, not just at Hampden but in the psychological battle in the league title race and, despite dominating, they blew it.

Rangers might want to send for some smelling salts because they have to get up and go again and quickly. They face Young Boys at Ibrox on Thursday and need a point to make the Europa League knockout stage or else all their excellent work in the group goes out of the window. Don't bet against Morelos bouncing back with a winner. Watching how he responds to Sunday will be riveting.

Less than three days after playing Young Boys, at midday on Sunday, they play an in-form Motherwell at Fir Park. Then they're away to an improving Hibernian and at home to Kilmarnock before travelling to Celtic on 29 December. That game always looked huge, but now looks seismic.

The next chapter of the Morelos drama will unfold there in an atmosphere that may prove as hard to deal with as the behemoth who broke him at Hampden.