By Alistair Aird
The skirl of bagpipes from a lone piper on the touchline 15 minutes before kick-off marked the start of Armed Forces Day at Ibrox. With around 200 servicemen and women in attendance, the capacity crowd afforded each of the representatives of the armed forces and the Royal Marines who abseiled down from the top of the Sandy Jardine stand ahead of the match a rousing reception. There was a chorus or two of ‘Rule Britannia’ too as everyone settled into their seats to watch this eagerly anticipated top-of-the-table clash.
In a bold move, Steven Gerrard made six changes to the XI that had lost in Prague on Thursday. Captain James Tavernier was left out and replaced at right back by Nathan Patterson, and the front three changed completely, with Morelos, Wright and Hagi coming in. Roofe, Sakala and Davis were the men to drop out, with Joe Aribo falling back into midfield alongside Jon Lundstram and Glenn Kamara. There was also a welcome return in the heart of the back four for captain-for-the-day, Connor Goldson.
With Hearts leapfrogging both clubs to top the table with a win over Motherwell, only a victory would take either Rangers or Hibernian back to the summit. Jack Ross made a statement with his team selection, naming two strikers in the shape of Kevin Nisbet and Martin Boyle. The latter had been in fine form, and he would have emerged from the tunnel confident of breaking his duck against Rangers. The Australian, with 11 goals to his name this season, hadn’t netted in 10 previous appearances against the Light Blues.
Hibernian were sporting an all-yellow kit that featured the lyrics of their fan’s anthem, Sunshine on Leith. But it was Rangers who shone in the early exchanges. Fine interplay involving Aribo, Morelos, Wright and Hagi ended with a cute reverse pass from the latter that almost released Wright in on goal.
Hagi was prominent in the early exchanges, and it was apparent there was a change in formation. It looked more like 4-2-3-1, with Lundstram and Kamara in a holding role behind Aribo, Wright and Hagi. There was a fluidity to the system too, with a lot of interchanging, but after such a bright start, Rangers fell behind after only eight minutes. Chris Cadden got himself enough space on the left to fire in a cross that was headed into the net by Kevin Nisbet. It was slack defending from a Rangers point of view.
There was almost an immediate response. Barisic crossed from the left and a scramble in the box ensued before Hagi was penalised for handball. This was followed by a really sloppy spell, with a number of loose passes which was summed up when Lundstram’s simple pass to Patterson was overhit and went out of play. Rangers lacked pace and incision and were disappointing and below par in the opening 20 minutes. Matt Macey in the visitors’ goal was largely untroubled. Hibernian were a threat on the counter-attack too, with Nisbet almost playing Boyle in.
And then came a definitive moment in the game. There was a sub plot given what had happened in previous games between the two sides, the tussle between Ryan Porteous and Alfredo Morelos. But only one of them was involved when the ball was played forward to Joe Aribo. The Nigerian was taken out by a reckless, rash and dangerous challenge by Porteous, and referee, Nick Walsh, had no option other than to brandish a red card.
Before Jack Ross could react to the dismissal, Rangers should have been level. The ball broke to Leon Balogun on the edge of the box, but his sidefoot shot slid wide of the target. Ross then made his change, bringing on the former Rangers centre-back, Darren McGregor, for Scott Allan. The ex-Celtic man was roundly booed by the home fans and was also booked by the referee for taking too long to leave the field of play.
Rangers took heart from having the extra man and pushed forward intent on restoring parity before half time. A lovely turn from Wright saw him advance into penalty area, and when he was tackled there were shouts for penalty. Walsh wasn’t interested, but former Aberdeen man, Wright, was coming more into the game, and from a free-kick he earned, Morelos headed over the crossbar. But as much as Rangers probed prior to the interval, too often they were too intricate around the box. They should have made better decisions when it came to the final pass.
On reflection at half time, other than fishing the ball out of the net, Allan McGregor had been a spectator, yet Rangers found themselves behind. They had been more prominent in an attacking sense since the ordering off but were still lacking quality in the final third. A big 45 minutes lay ahead, and the crowd demanded a response from Rangers.
There were no changes at the interval, and Rangers came out on the front foot. Nathan Patterson was prominent in the early exchanges, and the youngster would play a key role when parity was restored just before the hour mark.
The introduction of Kemar Roofe was also key. The Jamaican international came on for Glen Kamara and it looked like Rangers reverted to a 4-4-2 formation. And after the home side failed to capitalise on a couple of sliced clearances inside the Hibs box, they drew level. Picking the ball up on the right-hand side of the penalty area, Patterson floated a superb cross into the box that picked out the unmarked Roofe. He netted with a textbook header, and it was 1-1.
The goal lifted the crowd, and the noise level was cranked up several notches. Suddenly there was more zip about Rangers’ play, and after Morelos had a shot from 25 yards blocked, Lundstram fired high and wide. Patterson did likewise when the better option was to play in Hagi who was free outside him.
Steven Gerrard was much more animated now on the touchline. With arms folded, he was pacing the technical area, and he had his head in hands when Hagi made space for a shot that stung the palms of Macey.
Rangers were dominant, but as the game entered the latter stages, changes were afoot. Bacuna and Tavernier appeared ready to join the action only for those plans to be quickly changed when Rangers took the lead. It was the turn of the other full-back, Barisic, to deliver on this occasion, his sumptuous cross finding Morelos six yards from goal. The Colombian, as infuriating as he tends to be until this point, directed his header towards goal and the ball kissed the post as it beat Macey.
Ibrox was now rocking to the sound of ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ and ‘Champions Again’ as Steven Gerrard elected to change his mind for his substitutions, introducing Bacuna and Davis for Aribo and Wright. It was another solid choice by the manager, as Davis dictated play from the moment he came onto the field.
As the game entered the final 10 minutes, Rangers looked to be pushing for a killer third goal, and after 82 minutes, there was a big shout for a penalty. Hagi picked up the ball in a pocket of space in midfield and fed a pass through to Roofe. He shifted the ball onto his right foot but looked to be fouled in the act of shooting. Instead, play continued and when the ball broke to Morelos, his shot was blocked. Hagi then wriggled clear and tried to beat Macey at his near post only to see his shot parried wide for a corner.
But a one-goal lead is a vulnerable one, and with a minute to go, Boyle broke away from Barisic. He was fouled by the Croatian, earning the Rangers left-back a yellow card, but the free-kick from a dangerous area was cleared by a superb header clear from Morelos. And shortly after it was announced that there would be five minutes added time, Josh Doig hung up a cross to the far post that was clutched confidently by McGregor.
But Rangers ended the game on the front foot and held firm at the back to earn a massive three points. In the context of a season that has thus far brought mixed performances, the players stepped up to the occasion when called upon. Make no mistake about it, this was a pivotal fixture, and Rangers now go into the international break with the opportunity to reset and recharge sitting a point ahead of Hearts, four clear of Hibs and six in advance of sixth-placed Celtic.
Ibrox was bouncing at the end of the game as the fans saluted the players, all of whom had emptied the tank and put in a gutsy performance. The animated, pumped-up reaction of Steven Gerrard at the end of the game also showed how much this one meant. Come the end of the season, we may well reflect on this result as being a turning point. The quest for 56 starts in earnest now.