By Alistair Aird
Rangers welcomed bottom-of-the-table Livingston to Ibrox to kick off a run of four home games inside eleven days. A midweek meeting with Aberdeen will be followed by a visit from Ayr United in the Scottish Cup before the flurry of fixtures is concluded against Ross County on St Valentines Day. After the latter match, we will have played the same number of matches as Celtic, and with their slip up at Pittodrie in the early kick off, there may well be an opportunity to supplant our Old Firm rivals at the top of the league in that period. The ball was firmly planted in Rangers’ court.
Although the arrival of the centre forward that many of the supporters thought was essential wasn’t forthcoming, Rangers had a productive transfer window, bringing in Oscar Cortes, Fabio Silva, and Mohamed Diomande. And of that trio, Silva was named in the starting XI, with Cortes among the substitutes.
Silva was one of six changes Clement made to the team that eked out a 1-0 win over St Mirren last weekend. In came Balogun, Barisic, Jack, McCausland, and Matondo, with Souttar, Yilmaz, Raskin, Wright, Sterling, and Dessers making way.
The much-maligned Dessers could perhaps feel a touch unfortunate to be left out. After scoring just twice in his first nine league appearances, the Nigerian has since found the net in six of his last 10 in the Premiership. His total of 12 goals and seven assists in 33 appearances is a decent return, and it looks like it will be between him and Silva to spearhead the attack in the remaining matches as the Light Blues battle it out on three fronts.
Livingston, under the likeable David Martindale, prop up the Premiership. They haven’t tasted victory since October, and this should have been one of those games that fitted into the ‘formality’ category for Rangers. Featuring in the Lions’ starting XI were a couple of former Rangers players, Jason Holt and Andrew Shinnie, while Stephen Kelly was on the bench.
The 1-1 draw in the Granite City warmed the cockles of the hearts of the Rangers fans ahead of kick off at a sun-drenched but chilly Ibrox. There was an air of anticipation and expectation, this was the day to make a statement of intent and ramp up the pressure in the race for the 2023/24 title.
After being greeted by a raucous roar by an Ibrox crowd that for the first time had visiting fans housed in the Club Deck, Rangers, set up in Clement’s favoured 4-2-3-1 structure. You had the feeling that there would be fluidity along the front line, though, with McCausland, Cantwell, Silva and Matondo likely to interchange positions throughout.
Attacking as per tradition, the Broomloan Road end of the ground, Rangers forced the first corner after three minutes. Serenaded by the Union Bears, James Tavernier took it, and after his initial delivery was cleared, the ball was worked to Ryan Jack who stung the palms of Shamal George with a shot from distance. A succession of corners followed, and from the last of them, Tavernier’s wicked inswinging delivery was punched off the line by George.
As expected, Rangers were faced with a phalanx of yellow, but they were finding gaps, and as the grey clouds started to roll in, Matondo was unfortunate when he spooned a shot over the bar as the clock ticked towards the 10-minute mark.
With Abdallah Sima likely to be absent for a while and Oscar Cortes now an option on the left side of the attack, you felt that this was perhaps one of the last opportunities for the Welshman to stake a claim for that berth in the starting XI. However, with only two goals and nine assists in his 47 Rangers appearances prior to this one, he hadn’t exactly set the heather alight. But after a promising start, he was starting to drift out of this one too.
After 16 minutes, Tavernier looped a shot over the bar before Lundstram cut the daisies with a shot from similar range. Unfortunately, he hadn’t set his sights properly, and he tugged his effort wide of goal.
Rangers were forced into an early change after 20 minutes. Leon Balogun took a blow to the face and couldn’t continue. His place at the heart of the defence went to John Souttar.
Lundstram and Jack were starting to take control and dictate the pace of the game, and they were both involved when the ball was worked wide to Tavernier at the midway point of the first half. The captain’s low ball in was inviting, but neither Silva nor Matondo were able to profit. McCausland then stepped inside and curled in a beautiful effort that left George rooted to the spot. To his relief, the young Northern Irishman didn’t get enough bend on the ball, and it ended up wide of the left hand post.
The stats summed up the match after half an hour. Rangers had 77% possession, but of their 12 shots on goal, only two were on target. Four of them had been blocked. Passing accuracy was at 90%, with 218 passes made compared to just 70 from Livingston. Perhaps frustratingly for the manager, possession had been surrendered on 50 occasions.
A little bit of anxiety was starting to creep in. The glut of goals that were perhaps expected hadn’t arrived. But credit had to be given to Livingston who had been stoic and obdurate and carried out their gameplan almost flawlessly.
But perseverance can pay off and the home side eventually broke Livingston’s resistance after 41 minutes. Fabio Silva had taken up some good positions up to that point but hadn’t been picked out by a team mate. But the loan signing, a record buy for Wolverhampton Wanderers in September 2020 when they paid Porto a reported £35,000,000 for his services, was alert when he hooked the ball home when it broke to him inside the six yard box. A VAR check for a possible foul by Goldson followed, but the officials saw nothing amiss.
In a game such as this it was either going to be something scrappy or spectacular that made the breakthrough. It was most certainly the former, but when Rangers doubled their lead in first half stoppage time, we had a goal in the latter category too. The maligned Matondo stepped inside and with George statuesque, he bent a beauty into the far corner of the net with his right foot.
You felt that second goal gave Rangers breathing space and a platform to eat into the five-goal advantage Celtic had in terms of goal difference. Barring a couple of cataclysmic lapses, the points were secure which should have allowed the players to play with a little more freedom in the second half. With the handbrake off perhaps.
Silva was thwarted by George early in the second period as he tried to get on the end of a nice cross from Cantwell, and the Englishman was at the sharp end again when Rangers went 3-0 ahead 11 minutes after the restart. McCausland scampered down the right and his low ball was thumped beyond George by Cantwell.
I have been critical of Cantwell recently. I questioned his attitude, but it was spot on in this match. Faced by those two banks of five, he had to be patient and wait for openings. On the hour mark, he boasted 96% pass completion and had only surrendered possession on eight occasions. Cantwell showed his adaptability too, moving out to the right when Tom Lawrence was introduced to the fray and took up the number 10 position.
The Welshman was one of three changes made by Clement. Ridvan Yilmaz, the subject of interest in the transfer window, came on for Barisic, and there was a debut for Oscar Cortes, the Colombian replacing Matondo. If he makes a similar impact to the previous Colombian attacker to have served the club, admittedly when he was in his pomp, then he could make quite an impact as a Rangers player.
John Souttar almost made it 4-0 after 66 minutes when he rose to meet a Tavernier corner, but his header was wide of the mark. McCausland, who was effervescent throughout, then had two opportunities to score but was denied on both occasions by George.
Cortes saw the ball for the first time on 72 minutes, and he evaded a challenge before picking out Silva. The Portuguese was most unfortunate not to double his tally too, his acrobatic effort falling wide of the far post.
Rangers made two further changes after 75 minutes. Silva and McCausland made way for Dessers and Wright, and the home side were still pursuing more goals. Goal difference may well play a role in the final reckoning, and as this game entered the closing stages, you had a feeling that more openings in front of goal would present themselves.
The first of them fell to Dessers after 80 minutes. Great play down the right involving Cantwell and Wright ended with the latter fizzing the ball across the face of goal. It broke to Dessers, and he should have scored, but his left foot shot was wild. John Souttar’s fell into the same category too moments later, and Ridvan was then desperately unlucky when his cute chip scudded off the underside of the bar.
Rangers were playing with a swagger now. There were plenty of neat interchanges and one stunning crossfield pass from Cantwell that picked out Cortes. And although there were no further goals, a team who have had their mentality questioned on numerous occasions have been imbued with confidence under Clement. They genuinely have a shot at glory this season.
The home run rolls on to Tuesday and a chance to top the table with a three-goal win over Aberdeen. Given we reached the nadir of the season the last time the Dons darkened our door, it would be rather nice to exact some revenge and heap the pressure on Celtic ahead of their trip to face Hibernian 24 hours later. But three points are paramount, there are plenty of other games coming in which we can rack up more goals.
Celtic should be strolling off into the sunset, but they aren’t. They are stumbling, and we are now on their shoulder, ready to supplant them. The journey from terrible to Treble continues.