Maintaining Momentum – Rangers 4 v 2 Ross County, 7 November 2021

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By Alistair Aird.

Another near-capacity crowd gathered at Ibrox to honour the sacrifices made by so many who gave their lives on the battlefields across the globe. Ahead of the other Scottish Premiership game that had kicked off at midday, the minute’s silence had been sullied by the behaviour of the visiting supporters. There was no way that the same thing would happen at Ibrox. After the L118 light gun that boomed at the side of the pitch and shook the stadium had silenced, you could have heard a pin drop. Dignity and respect were shown in abundance. Lest we forget.

On the pitch, for Rangers it was all about maintaining momentum. Last time out in the league, Steven Gerrard’s side had been irresistible as they hammered Motherwell 6-1. Hopes were high that that form would continue against the side that currently prop up the Premiership table.

Gerrard made five changes from the XI that battled back to draw against Brondby in Denmark. As expected, there were alterations up front, with Alfredo Morelos dropping to the bench and fit-again Ryan Kent handed a place in the starting line-up for the first time since 16 September. Kent had made a significant impact when introduced from the bench on Thursday, and he was to make an even more telling contribution in this one. There was a first league start for Juninho Bacuna too, with his selection at the expense of Glenn Kamara suggesting an attacking, front foot philosophy.

Perhaps the most notable name in the matchday squad was that of Ryan Jack. He had last reported for first team duty on 21 February, and his return was a huge boost for Gerrard. The manager has always been effusive in his praise of Jack, and he continued in the same vein after the match, labelling Jack a ‘standard setter’. There is no doubt his return to fitness will bolster an area of the pitch where Gerrard already has an embarrassment of riches to select from.

Ross County came into the game having been inactive since they had recorded their first league win of the season, a 5-0 thrashing of Dundee at Dens Park. Their next opponents were supposed to be Hibernian, but a COVID outbreak at the Edinburgh side had resulted in the match being postponed not once but twice. Prior to the win in Dundee, Malky McKay’s side had lost seven of their previous ten league matches, and with Rangers full of attacking intent from the off, it looked likely that they would suffer another defeat in this one.

Only a minute had elapsed when the home side made their first thrust forward. Kent made space for a cross, and his dangerous delivery was headed high into the air inside the six-yard box. Sakala jumped for the loose ball with Ross County goalkeeper, Ash Maynard-Brewer, but was penalised by the referee, David Munro. Munro was in charge when the teams last met back in August, and he had an uncomfortable and inconsistent afternoon.

It was clear from the outset that pace was going to be a big part of Rangers’ forward forays, and Sakala showed Jack Baldwin a clean pair of heels after he intercepted a pass on the halfway line. The Zambian accelerated away, and his cross intended for Hagi was cleared for a corner. No one could profit from Tavernier’s delivery, but it was a positive start from Rangers.

Yet as has happened so often of late, Rangers once again rediscovered the rather annoying habit of conceding a cheap, early goal. Hagi tried to find Lundstram in the heart of the pitch, but his pass was errant. Ross County pounced, and the ball was fed to Joseph Hungbo. Despite suspicions of offside, the man on loan from Watford advanced on McGregor and slotted the ball home.

Gerrard admitted after the match that had VAR been available the goal would have been ruled out, but irrespective, the Rangers manager must have been frustrated that his side were masters of their own downfall for the umpteenth time this season. Remarkably, the last clean sheet in the league was registered on 25 September, and that’s one of only three in the opening 12 games.

But Rangers recovered their poise and almost levelled matters in the tenth minute. After good play between Kent and Bassey, the ball found its way to Bacuna on the edge of the box. He drove towards goal, and his shot was parried wide by Maynard-Brewer.

Ryan Kent has been sorely missed during his absence with a hamstring injury and he was at the heart of all that was positive about Rangers’ early play. And when his driving run at the heart of the Ross County defence was ended abruptly by Alex Iacovitti, Rangers had a free kick in a promising position some 25 yards from goal. Alas, the chance was wasted. Hagi and Tavernier hovered over the ball, but the former’s effort lacked conviction and didn’t clear the wall.

But when Kent burst forward again on 18 minutes, Rangers drew level. This time he was halted at the expense of a corner, and as is often the case, Tavernier’s delivery from the set piece was spot on. His brilliant ball to the front post found Joe Aribo, and the Nigerian’s superb header gave Maynard-Brewer no chance. The goal was a landmark moment for the Rangers captain too, it was the 100th he has created in his Rangers career.

Rangers now had their tails up. Bassey started to bustle down the left and linked up well with Kent. And the only thing lacking in the interplay between Bacuna, Hagi and Aribo was the final, killer pass.

And it was a move involving Hagi that led to Rangers’ second goal. His delicious dummy caught out the Ross County rearguard, and it took a last-ditch tackle to deny Sakala, the ball grazing the post as it went out for a corner. From the corner, Balogun ended up grounded on the six-yard line, but the ball found its way to Kent, and he unleashed a shot from distance that dipped and swerved as it made its way into the net. It was a stunning goal, and no more than Kent deserved for an enterprising start first half hour.

That kicked off a busy spell for the Ross County goalkeeper. Bacuna and Aribo both tested him with shots from distance, and he then hurried a clearance, hoofing the ball high into the air. Aribo, Kent, Bacuna and Hagi combined, but Bacuna’s back heel didn’t find a blue jersey which let Maynard-Brewer off the hook.

Leon Balogun then picked up a yellow card for a late challenge. He was labouring a little and was perhaps still suffering from the after-effects of the clash prior to Kent’s goal. From the resultant free-kick, the ball hit Hagi in the face, and rebounded to Sakala. The Zambian burst forward on the break, but his pass to Kent was heavy and the Englishman did well to win a corner. Tavernier’s delivery was again excellent, and Maynard-Brewer did well to punch the ball clear in a crowded six-yard box.

That was the last action of note in a first half that Rangers had dominated. Aside from plucking the ball out the net, Allan McGregor had hardly touched the ball, and there was much to admire about Rangers’ attacking play. More of the same was expected in the second half, and the home side delivered in a devasting 10-minute burst that brought two goals.

The first perhaps rivalled Kent’s for goal of the day. Sakala wriggled free and laid the ball back to Bacuna on the edge of the box. The Curacao international worked a lovely one-two with Aribo and lashed the ball into the net from the edge of the box. It’s fair to say that Bacuna hasn’t caught the eye in his previous eight appearances this season, but he was a standout in this match and can justifiably feel aggrieved not to have picked up the man-of-the-match award.

For the next ten minutes, Ross County couldn’t get out. Wave after wave of Rangers attacks came crashing down on them, and the only surprise was that that spell only yielded one goal.

Firstly, Hagi broke down the right, and his clever pass found Sakala who hit a right foot shot that was blocked for a corner. Tavernier worked that short to Bacuna, and his inviting delivery to the back post just evaded Sakala.

Although the Zambian didn’t get among the goals, he was a constant thorn in the Ross County side, and when he scampered away moments later and passed to Hagi, the Romanian’s left foot shot squirmed wide of target. And when Aribo played the ball through for Tavernier, the skipper looked set to add to his impressive goal tally, but he skewed his shot high and wide.

A fourth goal was inevitable, and it arrived on the hour mark. Aribo fed the ball wide for Tavernier, and his low cross was knocked into his own net by Iacovitti. I’m not sure Tavernier can claim the assist for that one, but the captain once again played his part in the creation of goalscoring opportunities for Rangers.

Gerrard then made his first substitution of the day when he withdrew Ryan Kent. Given he has been out for a number of weeks it made sense to take him off, but there was no respite for Ross County as Kemar Roofe was pitched into the front three in Kent’s place.

Rangers seemed intent on seeking more goals, and Sakala ruffled the side netting with a shot from the edge of the box. Ross County were defending desperately as they tried to repel what Rangers were throwing at them.

With the points safe, Gerrard once again looked to the bench and made a double change. And the 49,222 inside Ibrox rose in unison to acclaim the return of Ryan Jack. The influential midfielder, sidelined by a troublesome calf injury, got a great reception when he replaced John Lundstram, and he’ll have a huge role to play as the push for 56 continues. The other alteration saw Nathan Patterson coming on for Balogun. Gerrard stated afterwards that his reasons for this were two-fold, to give Balogun a rest and get some minutes for the eager Patterson, albeit at left-back.

The game entered something of a lull after that, but there were still opportunities for another Rangers goal. Bacuna was a matter of inches away from netting again, and after some dilly dallying in the Ross County defence, Roofe almost profited but his shot was blocked.

Thereafter Rangers seemed content to keep possession as the game entered its dying embers. Perhaps they rested on their laurels a bit too much, though, and the final goal of the game came from the visitors with four minutes left. There looked to be a bit of slackness again in the Rangers defence, as Jordan White was afforded plenty of space to fire a shot into the far corner of the net.

There was time for one more opening for Rangers, a low ball from Hagi being met by Roofe but his shot was deflected for a corner by a stunning reflex save from Maynard-Brewer. From the corner, the ball broke to Ryan Jack, but his shot into the ground didn’t trouble the Ross County defence.

Despite the concession of two poor goals, this was another sign that we are starting to see a more recognisable Rangers. They were ruthless and relentless, and that bodes well for a vital couple of fixtures on the other side of the international break. A repeat of this performance would most likely see Gerrard’s side into the League Cup Final and perhaps also through to the knockout stages in the Europa League. It’s a vital stage of the season on all fronts; we have to maintain the momentum the last two league games have given us.

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