By Alistair Aird
In the past 24 hours, we have been battening down the hatches as storm force winds and torrential rain have battered the country. The adverse weather conditions will relent soon no doubt, but the same can’t be said for the storm that brewed at Ibrox a couple of weeks ago when Rangers meekly surrendered to a depleted Celtic side a matter of days after being pulverised by PSV.
The cacophony of boos that followed the 1-0 Old Firm defeat were widely regarded as the most venomous and vitriolic ever heard at the stadium. The fans vented their fury and performances since then – with the exception perhaps of the second 45 minutes against Real Betis – have done little to inspire confidence that the tide will turn, and Rangers will ride this one out.
In the eye of the storm is the Rangers manager, Michael Beale. He has cut a beleaguered and bewildered figure – like a rabbit in the headlights – as he has tried to restore calm and get his Rangers side back on an even keel. But he hasn’t helped his own cause by continuing to make changes to his starting XI and the way the team is set up. The summer overhaul of the squad has left Beale with plenty of options to choose from, particularly middle to front, but too many of the new recruits have yet to find favour with the Rangers supporters.
The air of apathy was still lingering in the air ahead of this match in four sparsely populated stands. You still have the feeling that it is a matter of when rather than if the manager goes, but the League Cup at least afforded Beale a shot at glory and redemption. However, although Celtic are out of the competition, there weren’t many supporters that were brimming with confidence that Rangers would swat aside all the challengers and have their name etched on the trophy for the 28th time.
When the team lines were handed out around an hour before kick-off, it came as no surprise that changes had been made to the side that stuttered their way to a 1-0 win over Motherwell at the weekend. Out went Borna Barisic, Scott Wright, the injured Rabbi Matondo, and Cyriel Dessers. In came Ridvan Yilmaz, Ryan Jack, Abdallah Sima, and Kemar Roofe. Formation? It looked like some variation of 4-3-3, but there wasn’t much to suggest that this would be the night that the ‘handbrake’ would finally be released, and the forwards would ‘wreak havoc’.
Before kick off there was a poignant tribute to Jim Forrest who has passed away at the age of 79. Boasting a remarkable record of 150 goals in 170 games for Rangers, Forrest once scored 56 goals in one season. Even Ally McCoist couldn’t match or better that tally in his 15 seasons as the spearhead of the Rangers attack. As the stadium fell silent to pay their respects to Forrest, there would have been many who would have welcomed a player with either McCoist or Forrest’s finishing prowess into the current shot shy squad. In fact, a centre forward capable of scoring a fraction of the goals those two did for Rangers would have sufficed.
Livingston, led by the refreshingly honest David Martindale, must have fancied their chances of eliminating Rangers and to all intents and purposes, seal Beale’s exit from the Rangers manager’s office. They took to the field with two former Rangers players, Stephen Kelly, and Jason Holt, in their midfield, while another, Andrew Shinnie, was on the bench.
The ‘variation’ of 4-3-3 saw Jack, Lundstram and Ciefuentes sitting behind central striker Roofe, who was flanked by Lammers on the right and Sima on the left. Whether there would there be fluidity in that throughout, we would have to wait and see.
Rangers were on the attack right away. Yilmaz burst down the left was halted at the expense of a throw in, and moment later, Ciefuentes forced a corner on the right. From Tavernier’s delivery, Ben Davies rose, but his header didn’t trouble Shamal George in the Livingston goal.
All the same, it was an enterprising start from Rangers. Passes were zipping around the slick surface, and after eight minutes, Tavernier perhaps should have added to his impressive goal tally when the ball broke to him inside the box. Alas, his effort was well saved by George.
But two minutes later, Rangers had the early goal everyone in blue was craving. Sima outmuscled Jamie Brandon on the left and curled a beautiful shot beyond George with his right foot. There was a suggestion that Sima had perhaps fouled the Livingston defender, but referee, Willie Collum, and VAR were happy for the goal to stand. Looking back at replays, you had to be honest and say that both got it wrong; Brandon was clearly pushed by Sima.
The goal settled any nerves, and Sima was using his pace to good effect, drifting both right and left, forcing a couple of corner kicks. Tavernier’s delivery for both was poor, but the positive opening quarter of hour was a welcome change from the tedium that the supporters have been subjected to recently. But we had been here before this season – Rangers lulling us into a false sense of security by playing with vim and vigour in pockets of matches then reverting to monotony – so no one was getting carried away that all was well once again in the world of Rangers Football Club.
And that was how the next 15 minutes panned out. Rangers had plenty of the ball, but their play lacked any sort of flair or panache. Too often the final pass was either overhit or underhit, and the Livingston defence dealt easily with what came their way. Deliveries from wide areas lacked quality too.
It was as if the mindset was ‘job done’, the outcome now a formality, and Kelly almost made the home side pay for that lackadaisical attitude when he curled a shot from the edge of the box just wide of Jack Butland’s goal. It was a warning shot across the bows, but would Rangers take heed?
That was Livingston’s only attempt at goal in the opening 45 minutes. They had ‘enjoyed’ 25% possession, but for all their dominance of the ball and nine corners, Rangers had only mustered five shots on goal. The half time whistle brought a welcome respite from what was turning out to be another tough watch for the Rangers supporters.
Rangers made a change at the break. The injury prone Kemar Roofe looked to have succumbed once again, and he was replaced by Cyriel Dessers. Dessers is another who has offered little to convince the fans that Beale has recruited a centre forward capable of scoring a glut of goals, but he now had at least 45 minutes to try and convince the discerning public that he could make a worthwhile impact and fire Rangers into the last four of the tournament.
After what is now becoming a typically turgid spell of play, Rangers forced a couple of corners. They were of a similar ilk to those in the first half, though, and, 10 minutes into the second half, the moans and groans in the stands were becoming more audible. It was painful viewing.
Sima threatened to end the mediocrity when he drew a save from George then flashed the rebound across the face of goal. And after a rare outbreak of crisp and incisive passing, Lundstram fired a shot wide of target.
Livingston seemed to think they had a chance to get something from the game now, and not for the first time this season, Tavernier was easily brushed aside as the Lions roared forward. Goldson baled his captain out by conceding a corner, but from Sean Kelly’s outswinging delivery, De-Lucas had hearts in mouths when he rose to head goalwards. Mercifully, his effort fell wide of Butland’s left-hand post.
But then out of the blue, jangling nerves were settled. Yilmaz embarked on a solo run towards goal and let rip with a left foot shot that seared past George. It was brilliant from the diminutive full back who has struggled to settle and play regularly since arriving last summer. Imbued with confidence, he then tested George with a free kick from long range.
It was hard to work out whether the roar that greeted Yilmaz’s goal was one of recognition for a wonderful finish or one of relief. Unfortunately, for the young Turk, his evening ended prematurely when he hobbled off with what looked like a calf injury. Borna Barisic was the obvious replacement.
The goal knocked the stuffing out of Livingston and the feeling now was that Rangers had an opportunity to go on and score more goals. Sam Lammers, who was pretty anonymous throughout, was the first to attempt to add a third goal to the scoreboard, but his curling shot with his left foot was too high. The Dutchman then spooned a shot high into the Copland Stand when he slid in to meet a fizzing cross from Tavernier. He should have hit the target.
Sima eventually added his second of the evening with six minutes to go, although it may go down as an own goal. Barisic played a lovely pass down the left, and Sima’s effort spun into the net off the outstretched boot of De-Lucas.
A triple change followed. Lundstram, Sima, and Davies made way for Dujon Sterling, Scott Wright, and John Souttar. The introduction of Sterling saw Tavernier push forward to the right side of midfield. Given the defensive deficiencies that have been apparent with Tavernier for a while now, it will be interesting to see if this becomes a more regular feature of Rangers’ play as the season evolves.
Ryan Jack calmly slotted the ball into the net in stoppage time to complete the scoring at 4-0. It was the culmination of another decent passage of play that involved Sterling and Tavernier and a cute dummy from Wright. We need to see that kind of enterprising play more often, though.
‘Winning ugly’ is a phrase that is often coined in the sporting world, and it most certainly applies to Rangers at the moment. Beale’s side continue to play in fits and starts. The team lacks any real shape and there is little rhythm to their play. A better opponent may well have administered a more telling blow, but Livingston were pretty poor, registering just three attempts on Butland’s goal. So often called upon to make a vital save in recent weeks, the Englishman was untroubled throughout this one.
Four successive wins and four clean sheets might lift the mood for some, but the storm clouds are still lingering above Ibrox Stadium. However, Rangers and Michael Beale live to fight another day, and the quest to bring the League Cup back to Ibrox for the first time since 2011 continues.