By Alistair Aird

Most medical websites I looked at this week were fairly consistent with their message; the symptoms of a hangover usually ease within 24 hours. Clearly these learned individuals hadn’t considered how long an Old Firm hangover lasts! And the one induced by the 1-0 defeat at Hampden last Sunday will likely linger longer than many of the others we have suffered over the years.

When replacement referee Don Robertson tooted his whistle to bring the Scottish Cup semi-final to a conclusion, the match wasn’t the only thing that ended. Hopes of adding a sliver of silver to what has been a drab and dire season for Rangers were extinguished, and for the likes of Ryan Kent and Alfredo Morelos; well, if we didn’t think it was all over for both of them at Ibrox, it most certainly is now.

Michael Beale admitted post-match that the rebuilding work he will spearhead over the summer is likely to be the biggest we have had in a number of years. There will be a significant turnover in playing staff, with double figures likely to depart. And if we are to compete and go toe-to-toe with Celtic next season then Beale will need to bring in at least 10 new players. A few weeks ago, some reckoned we would get away with recruiting only five.

It was against that backdrop that Aberdeen arrived in Glasgow for what could best be described as a ‘dead rubber’. Although there has always been a bit of an edge to this fixture, this one didn’t seem to have the same allure. Even the prospect of watching some fringe players stake a claim for a place next season didn’t seem to entice the supporters to converge on Ibrox. At five minutes to three there was a plethora of empty blue seats; the usual occupants perhaps deciding that a Sunday afternoon in front of the TV was more appealing than enduring another plodding performance from their heroes.

An emotionally charged rendition of the national anthem to mark the coronation of King Charles III cranked the volume up ahead of kick-off, and it was on the eleven selected by Michael Beale to elevate their performance to ensure that the decibel level was maintained over the 90-plus minutes that lay ahead.

The most interesting of the five changes made by Beale was the inclusion of Robby McCrorie in goal. The number three goalkeeper at the club behind Allan McGregor and Jon McLaughlin was making just his third appearance for the first team. In his two previous outings against Alashkert and Celtic last season, McCrorie had kept two clean sheets, and with a new number one likely to be at the top of the manager’s summer shopping list, this was an opportunity for the 25-year-old to show what he could do.

Fashion Sakala was tasked with filling what has been an empty jersey of late. Alfredo Morelos was his usual ineffectual self last weekend, and his side-lining was long overdue. With Antonio Colak injured, Sakala was the only option for the centre forward role really, and his inclusion highlighted another area of the side that needs to be strengthened as a priority. It also gave the man who comes from Zambia an opportunity to atone for another astonishing and appalling miss at Hampden.

On the subject of ‘empty jerseys’ Ryan Kent’s place on the left-hand side went to Rabbi Matondo. The Welshman had us on the edge our seats in pre-season, particularly in the win over West Ham United, but for whatever reason, he didn’t really kick on from that. You don’t get many chances to impress at Rangers, and you have the feeling that these last five games may well be the last chance Matondo gets to show the Rangers fans he can offer something to the team.

The home side started well. Todd Cantwell, who continues to catch the eye and impress, fizzed a long range shot over the bar, and Ianis Hagi, playing in the number 10 role, was heavily involved too as Rangers knocked on the red door looking for an opening. Cantwell then had another effort on goal, taking a chested pass from Sakala, shifting the ball out of his feet, and curling a right foot shot just wide of Kelle Roos’s left-hand post.

But as the first half progressed, the match became a microcosm of season 2022/23 for Rangers. They had plenty of possession, the players passed and probed, but there wasn’t sufficient guile to open up the opposition or test their goalkeeper. And as has often been the case, an extra touch was taken, or a passive pass was made when a more incisive approach could have reaped a reward. For someone who wants his forwards to ‘wreak havoc’ this and the profligacy in front of goal is something else Michael Beale will have to address sooner rather than later.

Robby McCrorie wasn’t busy either, but he was the first goalkeeper called upon to make a save after 27 minutes. Aberdeen broke forward and Bojan Miovski teed up the much-vaunted Duk some twelve yards from goal. His left foot shot was on target, but McCrorie’s outstretched right foot ensured the ball ended up in the Copland Road stand and not the back of the net.

On the half hour, the blue touch paper was lit. The ball drifted harmlessly out of play, but Cantwell and Leighton Clarkson had what could be described as a ‘coming together’. The Aberdeen fans, penned into the corner between the Broomloan Road and Sandy Jardine stands, bayed for a red card, but referee John Beaton wasn’t even tempted to go to the VAR screen. A yellow card for each of the protagonists was deemed sufficient punishment.

Seven minutes from the interval, Rangers carved out an opening. Tavernier, quiet again for the most part, played in Lundstram and he dug out a cross from the by-line. Hagi rose and headed the ball towards goal, and Roos leapt to his left and diverted it wide for a corner. He was sprightly again a couple of minutes later, coming off his line to thwart the advancing Sakala.

The heavens then opened, the leaden sky overhead taking the place of the blue one that we had seen earlier in the afternoon. The fact that attention had turned to the clouds scurrying across the sky summed up the lack of quality on the green, green grass of home. And as eyes turned back to the action, Sakala was once again reckless in front of goal. It’s becoming a rather annoying habit now. On this occasion, the Zambian had another clear sight of goal, but Roos was again equal to his effort.

Rangers were forced to make a change on the stroke of the interval. Ben Davies, who has had a season ravaged by injury, pulled up and was withdrawn. His place alongside Connor Goldson went to another centre back who has spent a fair amount of time on the treatment table too, John Souttar.

The half ended with a couple of efforts on goal from James Tavernier. Roos parried away his first one, while the Rangers skipper bent the second one over the crossbar.

It was all a bit too familiar for the home support. Huffing and puffing from Rangers was symptomatic of the opening 45 minutes and when they did manage to fashion an opening, the opportunities were spurned, mostly by the players who should be doing better in those positions. The second half had to be better, surely?

There were no changes at the break, with Beale putting his faith in the eleven that lined up at 3pm. You did feel, however, that should the game continue in the same manner as it had thus far that changes would be afoot. Maybe we would get a glimpse of the promising promptings of Alex Lowry at some point?

Three minutes after the restart, the crossbar was reverberating, but it should have been the net that was billowing. Matondo got himself to the by-line and drilled the ball across goal, but a sliding Sakala succeeded only in directing his effort on to the bar. It was another that fell into the ‘had to score’ category.

Sakala started so well under Beale, and his energy and enthusiasm cannot be questioned. But Rangers centre forwards need to score goals on a regular basis to ingratiate themselves with the supporters. Twenty-plus goals a season is a must. And the Zambian’s desperate luck in font of goal was summed up when he eventually beat Roos after 52 minutes but was denied by the assistant referee’s raised flag.

Robby McCrorie added another impressive save to his portfolio shortly afterwards, tipping a goalbound header from Mattie Pollock over the bar. Although their gameplan was clearly to stifle and stymie Rangers, Aberdeen still posed a threat in the forward areas, and you had that stomach-churning feeling that the longer the game went, the more likely it would be that they would break the deadlock.

But after 64 minutes those fears were allayed when Rangers finally hit the front. Tavernier’s corner from the right drifted to the far post where Cantwell smote the ball into the net on the volley. It was another fine finish from the Englishman, and you would suspect that after he gets a solid pre-season under his belt, he will be a potent weapon in our attacking arsenal next season.

The goal was followed by a flurry of changes. Matondo, Sakala, Hagi, and Raskin were withdrawn, their berths being taken by Wright, Morelos, Arfield, and Kamara. The alterations again illustrated the scale of the rebuild required in the close season. It is likely that neither of those players will be at Ibrox next season, although Arfield would be worth keeping for another year. That being said, if he is offered a new deal, he won’t be a regular in the starting XI.

Scott Wright came close to scoring against his former club, but Roos tipped his rising shot over the bar. Wright then wriggled away from a couple of challenges on the left before playing a teasing cross into the six-yard box. Tavernier had a tap in, but a late intervention by the Aberdeen defence denied him.

Wright is a frustrating player. There is no doubt he has ability and can hurt teams, but he has been incredibly inconsistent in his time with Rangers. He had made 82 appearances for the club, scored eight goals, and claimed seven assists. But of those 82 appearances, 54 have come from the subs bench, and his sum total of minutes is 384. Although his involvements in this game were much more positive, pastures new would be the best option for both parties at the end of the season.

Robby McCrorie, intent on maintaining his 100% clean sheet record, saved again with his legs to thwart Shayden Morris. You would have to suspect that with his age, he would be looking for some sort of assurances over his status at the club before deciding if he will remain a Ranger. He certainly hasn’t let anyone down and he commands his area well, but whether he has the calibre to be a Rangers number one remains to be seen. That question will only be answered definitively if he gets a run of games, but for the moment, it’s three shut outs out of three. Hopefully he is afforded the chance to add to those numbers in the four games that remain.

Rangers once again took comfort from being at home – we are unbeaten in the league at Ibrox, and only Livingston and Celtic have left with something – but for long stages, this was turgid and torpid. But then again, that’s what it’s been like for most of the season.

Next week, it’s ‘the other mob’. Let’s burst their bubble, beat them, and take a crumb of comfort from our campaign.

The quest to end the season on a high continues.

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