By Alistair Aird
When Michael Beale’s Rangers took to the field to face Real Betis, it was to contest the first of four home games in three different competitions inside 10 days. And that run concluded on the last day of September with the visit of Aberdeen, one of the most keenly contested fixtures on the calendar irrespective of how either team is faring.
It’s fair to say that the prospect of four matches in quick succession at Ibrox may well have been viewed as a daunting prospect for a Rangers side under scrutiny. But although there have been some ropey moments in the three games played prior to this one, Beale’s patched up side have won them all. Six goals have been scored, none conceded.
Playing those intense matches in such as short spell has taken its toll on the squad. A glut of injuries has robbed Beale of a number of options middles to front. That meant he had a bench that was short of attacking options, with only Scott Wright and young Zak Lovelace forward thinking players.
Beale’s only change from the midweek win over Livingston was enforced. With a groin complaint the latest in a long list of injuries to rule out Kemar Roofe, Cyriel Dessers came in to lead the line. The Nigerian has looked laborious and cumbersome at times since his arrival in the summer. That has drawn criticism, but he has shown in the past that he can be effective. Although he only scored seven times in 29 appearances for Cremonese last season, in season 2021/22 he scored 10 goals in 13 appearances for Feyenoord in the UEFA Europa Conference League. Thus far for Rangers, he has three goals and three assists in 13 appearances, his minutes on the pitch totalling 733. With Danilo and Roofe likely to be absent for a few weeks, this was a real opportunity for Dessers to show he has the necessary credentials to make his mark as a Rangers centre forward.
The kick off was preceded by contributions from the UK’s Armed Forces. Armed Forces Day is always a popular one on the Rangers calendar, and as the teams were led out by service personnel, they were afforded a raucous reception. A couple of members of the RAF then abseiled from the top of the Sandy Jardine Stand, one of them presenting referee, Steven McLean, with the match ball.
Rangers started on the front foot. After a couple of minutes, the much-maligned Sam Lammers took the ball into feet and spun away from his marker. His slide rule pass towards Dessers was cut out, though. And there were groans a minute later when Dessers spooned the ball over the bar when well placed on the right side of the box.
The home side were zipping the ball around at pace as they probed for an opening. John Lundstram, who has been playing well of late, was dictating the pace of the game, and Lammers again showed good feet to create space for a shot that was tugged wide. Jose Cifuentes then picked out Sima, but his diving header fell a fraction wide of the right-hand post.
This was much like it from Rangers. When Aberdeen, set up in a very defensive formation, did have possession, they were harried by those in blue jerseys, and after one turnover, Cifuentes forced the first corner of the contest. It was imperative that Rangers didn’t relent, rewards would surely come if they kept up the intensity and high pressing that had been the hallmark of the opening 10 minutes.
After a little bit of a lull in proceedings, Rangers almost hit the front after 20 minutes. Ryan Jack, whose socks at the back resembled a pair of ripped jeans, dug out a cross from the left, and Dessers’s header drew a diving save from Kelle Roos in the Aberdeen goal.
There followed a sloppy spell. Passes were errant and often overhit, and that seemed to encourage Aberdeen to break out of their defensive cocoon. They didn’t really look like penetrating the Rangers defence, though, and play soon shifted to the other end where we witnessed Rangers doing likewise. There was plenty of passing from side to side, but it took until the thirty-fifth minute before an opening was fashioned. Tavernier’s cross picked out Cifuentes in the six-yard box, but the Ecuadorian somehow failed to find the target.
And he was made to pay for his profligacy a minute later when Aberdeen took the lead. A corner was allowed to drift to the back post where Stefan Gartenmann slid in to score. It was a dreadful goal to concede and ended the recent run of clean sheets.
Rangers needed a response, but a quick glance at the stats suggested that Cyriel Dessers, who had passed up two good chances, was struggling to make an impact once again. With 40 minutes played, he had only touched the ball 10 times – in contrast, Sam Lammers had had 30 touches – and hadn’t won any of his four aerial duels. He had executed just seven passes too. His looping header that fell limply into the hands of Roos two minutes before the break summed up another frustrating 45 minutes for the Rangers number nine.
On a day when injury time had already proven pivotal, the fourth official’s board showed that there would be five additional minutes at the end of the first half. Could Rangers make use of it to restore parity? They couldn’t – Dessers did get his head to a Yilmaz cross, but it drifted harmlessly wide – and there were plenty murmurings of discontent as the players trooped off at the interval.
Beale made two changes at the break. Yilmaz was replaced by Barisic, while Scott Wright came on for Ryan Jack. That looked to prompt a change in shape to what looked like 4-2-4, with Wright and Sima playing wide of Lammers and Dessers.
Rangers created an opening after 53 minutes. The ball was funnelled wide to Barisic on the left side of the box, and his low shot with his left foot was parried by Roos. Alas, there was no one in a blue jersey on hand to pounce on the rebound.
Aberdeen then almost scored a second. They forced a corner and although it was cleared, Dessers gave the ball away, and when it was crossed to the back post, Bojan Miovski struck the frame of the goal with a header. He should have scored and hammered another nail into the Rangers coffin.
As the clock ticked on to the hour mark, there was little to convince the home supporters that Rangers were going to turn this one around. But at that moment, an opportunity presented itself when Lundstram was barged to the ground on the edge of the box. Barisic and Tavernier addressed the ball, but the captain summed up his performances of late when he fired high and wide of target. Tavernier is a pale imitation of the player that excelled in the run to Seville, and perhaps its time for Dujon Sterling to get some more game time.
For Cyriel Dessers, his afternoon was going from bad to worse. He was making no inroads whatsoever, his touches were heavy, and the fans were imploring Beale to take him off. The manager didn’t listen.
And after 68 minutes came the hammer blow that will more than likely signal the end for Michael Beale. Rangers once again made a meal of dealing with a corner kick and after Butland produced a fine reaction save, Jamie McGrath thundered a shot into the top corner.
Rangers were then reduced to 10 men when Scott Wright was given a second yellow card, and suddenly you could see swathes of empty blue seats. It was one-way traffic and that was directed towards the goal of Jack Butland, and after another not-so-sweet surrender, the fans had had enough.
But out of nothing, Rangers were thrown a lifeline. With 15 minutes to go, Barisic looped in a cross, Roos flapped at the ball under pressure from Dessers, and when the ball broke to Sima, he thumped it into the net. Too little, too late perhaps?
Goldson was booked for a crude foul, and during the stoppage in play, Cyriel Dessers was replaced by Zak Lovelace. The reaction of the fans let both player and manager know that the change had happened too late in the day. The Nigerian looked out of his depth once again, and placed more question marks as to why the recruitment team saw fit to recommend that Rangers shell out a large transfer fee to bring him to Glasgow.
When play restated, Aberdeen sealed the deal. Jack Butland again performed heroics to thwart a shot from Johnny Hayes, but the ball broke to Jack MacKenzie, who rifled it into the net via the underside of the bar. A lengthy VAR check followed, but the goal stood.
Cue a further exodus. For the vast majority, the pain was now unbearable.
After seven league games, the gap between Rangers and Celtic is seven points. Beale’s side have lost three of those seven games, two of which were at home. It was time for change before today, but this result was a stark illustration that the cracks can’t be papered over. They are now chasms. This is a Rangers squad that has been assembled after a significant financial outlay, but the team has regressed rather than progressed. And that regression shows no signs of relenting any time soon.
A damning indictment, but a truthful one.