By Alistair Aird
It was festive, freezing and foggy as the fans descended on G51 for another step along the road to the Premiership title. Rangers, red hot since Giovanni van Bronckhorst took over, looked to maintain momentum in the second of three successive home games, and with their nearest challengers not on league duty again until Wednesday, this was an opportunity to stretch their lead at the summit to seven points.
Continuity was once again to the fore when van Bronckhorst named his starting XI. He made two changes, one of which was enforced. Borna Barisic had come off midweek, his energy sapped by illness, and although he had trained on Friday, he missed out.
His replacement against St Johnstone, Nathan Patterson, came in, with many expecting him to show his versatility by slotting in at left back. But they were surprised when the teams lined up with Patterson at right back, Calvin Bassey at left back and captain James Tavernier alongside Connor Goldson at centre half. Normal service was resumed within five minutes of the kick-off, though, with Patterson moving to the left.
The other change was in midfield, John Lundstram coming in for Joe Aribo. Aribo has been in scintillating form but teetering on the brink of a suspension that would rule him out of the Old Firm game, it was a sensible decision to put him on the bench.
The Dundee United team was decimated thanks to combination of suspension, injuries and a COVID outbreak at the club. Manager Tam Courts therefore had to make six changes from the team that lost 1-0 against Livingston and fill his bench with a clutch of youngsters. Their fans, clustered in the corner, were in good voice, although you had to suspect they wouldn’t see much of their team in an attacking sense.
A measure of how far Rangers have come was illustrated in the match programme. It had been nine years since we had last played on 18 December, the recently retired David Templeton scoring twice in a 3-0 win over Annan Athletic in the Third Division. The attendance that afternoon was 42,135, and there were very few seats left in the house on this occasion either.
With ‘Simply the Best’ booming out, the teams took to the field, United wearing an unfamiliar all-white kit which had flashes of their traditional tangerine. In a break from the norm, Rangers attacked the Copland Road end in the first half, and perhaps that move away from tradition can explain the insipid display in the opening 45 minutes.
Although Rangers were trying to make headway, the early attacking thrusts came from United. Former Ranger, Nicky Clark, was the first to get a sight of goal, but his shot was smothered by McGregor. And after six minutes, 18-year-old Christopher Mochrie was teed up on the edge of the box, but he mishit his shot and Patterson cleared for a corner.
Strangely, there wasn’t much in an attacking sense from Rangers. It took them 15 minutes to register a shot on target, and it was all rather disjointed. This was summed up when Morelos showed good strength in the heart of the pitch, but overhit his pass wide to Hagi., A passing interchange between Hagi, Tavernier and Arfield was brought to a halt too when Hagi lost control of the ball and it went out of play.
The opening 20 minutes were certainly not following the script. Rangers were labouring, and the United youngsters were not overawed and weren’t the lambs to the slaughter that most expected them to be. Staggeringly, one bookmaker was offering odds of 50/1 for a United win and 12/1 for the draw, but on this evidence, it seemed that that might just be worth a punt.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst was becoming increasingly animated on the edge of the technical area, and he must have been disappointed when Kamara manoeuvred himself into a shooting position only to tug his left foot shot wide. Lundstram was next to try his luck – his left foot shot was deflected wide – and from Hagi’s corner, Tavernier fired high over the bar
It certainly wasn’t as slick as it had been lately. There were too many loose passes in midfield and a lack of cutting edge in the forward areas. And there were some heart-stopping moments at the back too, none more so than after 34 minutes when the ball was fired across the Rangers six-yard box. Fortunately, there were no takers.
United were pressing, allowing Rangers no time to settle, but Archie Meekison was a tad overzealous when he fouled Kamara and earned the first booking of the match. But from the free kick, Patterson took his eye off the ball, and it trundled out of play. There was no cohesion or pace about Rangers’ play, and this was an insipid and colourless display. It was all very flat, and there was no zip to the passing
Yet out of nothing, Rangers almost hit the front on the cusp of half-time. Patterson found space and his fantastic delivery picked out Morelos, but the Colombian’s header was tipped over the bar by the United goalkeeper, Trevor Carson.
Some harsh words must have been spoken in the home dressing room, and as has been his wont, van Bronckhorst elected to change things with immediate effect. John Lundtsram was withdrawn, and the introduction of Scott Wright suggested an injection of pace. Ianis Hagi, who doesn’t look comfortable or indeed effective as a right winger, now took up a more central position alongside Scott Arfield.
And Rangers burst out of the blocks. Ryan Kent skinned Darren Watson and stood up a great cross that was headed away, and after a burst of pace from Wright, Morelos fired over the bar with his right foot.
But it was still rather ragged, and with an hour played, there was still no sign of the breakthrough. It was time to take a risk. After 64 minutes, Joe Aribo came on for Scott Arfield. The manager was clearly willing to gamble, he needed Aribo to get on the ball and make things happen.
And within a minute, Rangers should have been ahead. Scott Wright got himself into a shooting position, but took one touch too many, allowing Carson to make the save It was a gilt-edged chance. The ball was eventually cleared but United’s 16-year-old debutant, Craig Moore, went down and the stretcher had to be called for. He was replaced by Kerr Smith.
Smith slotted into defence alongside Scott McCann, but the latter had a vital role to play in what would be the only goal of the game with 19 minutes to go. It’s unclear if McCann was waving to a family member in the crowd or not, but there was no doubt that his arm wasn’t in a ‘natural position’. A penalty of the stonewall variety. The skipper took the responsibility, and clinically despatched the ball into the net. Ibrox was now bouncing, but that was as much down to relief as anything else.
Aside from a hooked shot over the bar by Morelos, there was little to suggest a second goal was forthcoming, and that left Rangers susceptible to a sucker punch. And that was almost delivered during the five minutes of added on time. There was hesitancy in the home defence, and when the ball fell to Darren Watson, his looping header struck the bar. It was all over shortly after that.
It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t pleasing on the eye, but in the grand scheme of things, it was three vital points. We have played better and dropped points. We have played similarly and dropped points. But we didn’t on this occasion. That’s the hallmark of champions.