By David Herd
Rangers got back to winning ways with a comfortable win over relegation-threatened Kilmarnock at Ibrox, in a match where an excellent 45 minute performance was more than enough to ease to victory.
After a week of recriminations and reflection over the team’s dismal showing at Hampden in the League Cup final, it was no surprise that Michael Beale made 4 changes to the starting line-up last Sunday. Nico Raskin and Ryan Jack provided the midfield anchor instead of the heavily-criticised John Lundstram and Glen Kamara, with Antonio Colak given a rare start under Beale up front instead of Alfredo Morelos. The other change saw Todd Cantwell play in his preferred “number 10” role, with Malik Tillman missing entirely through injury.
As a sign of how quickly things can change, there were only three starters who had lined up against the same opposition just last August, James Tavernier, Connor Goldson joining Colak as the only players to start both Ibrox matches against the Ayrshire side.
Unsurprisingly after last weekend, the Ibrox crowd wanted to make their feelings known on another trophy heading to Parkhead, with banners unfurled at both ends of the ground making their feelings clear on the role of the board and the Director of Football. But the team didn’t allow the mood to darken any further with a blistering start, and Rangers were a goal up after just 6 minutes. And it was the 6th set piece goal in the league since the new manager’s arrival. A clever corner was played low into the box, and after Todd Cantwell had 2 efforts blocked, a Colak shot was parried by goalkeeper Sam Walker straight to the lurking Connor Goldson who thumped it home from 5 yards.
The early goal was just what the team, and the crowd, needed and it signalled the start of a long period of Rangers dominance which was peppered with flowing football easy on the eye. Sakala missed 2 great chances in the space of a few minutes when he first saw his shot saved after a glorious through ball from Raskin, then he somehow turned the ball wide from a few yards out with the goal at his mercy. The midfield with Jack and Raskin showed the kind of tempo and quick passing that was absent at Hampden, and the inevitable second goal arrived on 24 minutes. It was third time lucky for Sakala, and a second assist for Colak. The Croatian striker took advantage of confusion in the Kilmarnock defence, laying the ball into the path of the Zambian and his finish gave the keeper no chance.
Colak had an excellent first half, showing great awareness in leading the line, and must have given the manager food for thought for his team selection in midweek. After 41 minutes he was claiming for a penalty when Ryan Kent’s forward run into the box seemed to be denied by the arm of defender Ryan Alebiosu. The claim was then shown to be a genuine one, when referee Willie Collum was summoned to the VAR screen a full minute later. The penalty was eventually, and rightly, given and captain Tavernier buried it with confidence to kill off the game at 3-0 at half-time.
The home fans were looking forward to more goals after the interval, but Rangers again showed their Jekyll and Hyde character by giving a frustrating 45 minute display of poor passing and lack of urgency. The one exception to that was Cantwell, who looked every inch a former EPL player who will be a massive asset in Scottish football. The half started with Allan McGregor spilling a straightforward shot then escaping a penalty decision when he looked to make contact with the Kilmarnock player as he ushered the ball out for a corner. The Rangers goalkeeper survived another scare when a low ball fizzed across the face of goal only for Ash Taylor to knock it into the side netting at the far post when he should have scored.
But Killie did get their first Ibrox goal since Kris Boyd’s winner in March 2018 just before the hour mark. Former Rangers forward Jordan Jones, who had come on at half-time, hit a deep corner which was headed back across goal by Taylor. The big Kilmarnock defender looked to be blatantly holding down Connor Goldson, but when the ball was then nodded home by fellow defender Jeriel Dorsett referee Collum stunned the Rangers players and supporters by awarding the goal.
Seeing the opposition score, and seeing their team misplace countless passes caused more than a few moans and groans amongst the Ibrox fans, with the remainder of the game more about free kicks and substitutions rather than exciting goalmouth incident. John Lundstram replaced Raskin, who seemed to be tiring, then with 10 minutes left the manager briefly gave us the sight of both the club’s main strikers on the pitch at the same time when Morelos replaced Sakala. Apart from a point-blank Colak header well blocked by Walker, the only remaining moment of discussion was the sight of Rangers making a triple substitution in injury time with just 2 minutes left. John Souttar made a welcome comeback (and a competitive home debut) by replacing the stadium Man of the Match Ben Davies, with Ianis Hagi and Scott Arfield also given the chance to get their shorts dirty with Colak and Cantwell withdrawn.
All in all, it was a comfortable win, and a first 45 minutes that Rangers played some excellent football. Post-match, Michael Beale spoke of his pleasure at the first half, and gave particular praise to Antonio Colak, who he described as now at the level of fitness he needs of his players. He was also happy with the display of Cantwell, who was my personal Man of the Match, highlighting that his craft and ability to spot a pass needs runners in the team to take advantage of that vision. The second half frustrated the manager as much as the support, Michael Beale praising the introduction of John Lundstram for bringing stability back into the team after an erratic spell after half-time. He suggested the starting line-up at Easter Road in midweek won’t see too many changes from today, although Tillman should be an option available to him.
Let’s hope we see the team perform for 90 minutes next time.