MOUSSA DEMBELE grabbed a hat-trick as Celtic demolished Rangers 5-1 at Parkhead in the first Ladbrokes Premiership meeting between the clubs in four years.
The 20-year-old striker – in for the injured Leigh Griffiths – started the rout when he headed the home side ahead from a Scott Sinclair corner in the 33rd minute.
The Frenchman added a second with a confident finish before Gers striker Joe Garner reduced the deficit just before the interval.
However, hopes of a comeback were dampened when Sinclair made it 3-1 before Rangers debutant defender Philippe Senderos was sent off by referee Willie Collum for picking up two bookings, the second for a hand ball.
Dembele added a fourth and substitute Stuart Armstrong a late fifth as the visitors ended the match in disarray, with the Parkhead side going four points clear of their newly-promoted rivals at the top of the table with a game in hand.
Even this early in the season – the Hoops have only played four league games – it looks good for Brendan Rodgers’ side in their quest for title number six and they now prepare for their Champions League opener against Barcelona at the Nou Camp on Tuesday night.
There was a pre-match blow to Hoops hopes when star striker Griffiths failed to recover from a hamstring injury – he is doubtful for the game against Barcelona on Tuesday – with French Dembele coming in but the home fans had no need to worry, as it transpired.
Former Arsenal defender Senderos made his debut in the heart of the Gers defence and Garner made his first start in an attack-minded line-up which included Niko Kranjcar, Josh Windass and Barrie McKay.
As always in this fixture, the atmosphere was super-charged and the frenetic early stages saw Rangers cope comfortably with Hoops’ attacks while looking purposeful moving forward.
However, for all Rangers looked mostly untroubled they were found wanting again at a set-piece when Dembele beat Gers defender Rob Kiernan to a Sinclair corner to head in off the post.
The Govan side wobbled with the set-back and when Kiernan gave possession away, midfielder Nir Bitton sent Dembele racing through a massive gap in the Gers rearguard and he turned inside Senderos before knocking it past Wes Foderingham, who not for the first time, found himself unguarded.
Barely had the cheers from the delighted Celtic fans subsided when Rangers right-back James Tavernier crossed to the back post for ex-Celt Kenny Miller to head back across goal, giving Garner the chance to head in from under the bar.
Midfielder Andy Halliday replaced Kranjcar for the start of the second half and it was Rangers who came close to levelling when Barrie McKay curled a shot past the far post.
Armstrong came on for Tom Rogic in the 54th minute and six minutes later the Parkhead side restored their two-goal lead when Dembele slipped in Sinclair who beat Foderingham at his near post.
More substitution followed, Patrick Roberts for Forrest, Martyn Waghorn for Miller and Harry Forrester for Kiernan but Celtic had a firm grip on the game.
Foderingham made a fine save from Armstrong’s long-range effort before Callum McGregor replaced Hoops skipper Scott Brown, whose much anticipated battle with Joey Barton did not materialise.
When Senderos was sent off soon afterwards – he had been earlier booked for a foul on Sinclair – it was effectively over for Rangers, who then had assistant Davie Weir sent to the stand.
Celtic kept pressing and Dembele grabbed his third when he had a time and space to take down a Mikael Lustig cross and fired into the far corner, with Armstrong adding more salt to some very blue wounds when he made it 5-1 in added time.
Pick up tomorrow’s Sunday Post for more analysis and reaction to the match.
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