Bt Alistair Aird
When I penned my match report following the visit of Aberdeen to Ibrox on 30 September, I entitled it ‘The End of The Road’. Another insipid and inept performance from the beleaguered home side resulted in a 3-1 win for Aberdeen. Seven league games into the season, the gap between Celtic and Rangers at the top of the league was seven points. It was time for change, and Michael Beale was dismissed fairly quickly afterwards.
At that time, even the most positive supporter of Rangers would have been thinking of damage limitation. It was painful to watch their heroes limp lifelessly through games, and not many would have ventured to their nearest bookmaker to place their hard-earned cash on Rangers winning a 56th league title. It was grim.
Yet here we were, just over four months later facing Aberdeen at Ibrox again with the possibility of leapfrogging Celtic and taking over at the summit. Astonishing is an understatement.
No one could have foreseen the remarkable turnaround that has happened. but under the cool, calm, and collected Philippe Clement, Rangers have won 13, drawn one and lost one in the title race since that abysmal early autumn afternoon. There was also a win over St Mirren under the caretaker charge of Steven Davis. That amounts to 43 points out of a possible 48. In the meantime, Celtic have collected 39 points but have played a game more. With our Old Firm rivals, two ahead when accounting for goal difference, not due to play Hibernian until tomorrow, a three-goal victory would take Rangers top since Celtic boasted a healthier return in the Goals For column (55 to 48).
The feel-good factor was indeed back, and as the ground started to fill up ahead of the 8pm kick-off, you sensed an atmosphere building in the way it would on one of the myriad majestic European nights we have been fortunate to be part of since Steven Gerrard arrived in the summer of 2018.
Clement made four changes to the XI that had kicked off the match against Livingston at the weekend. Two of them we were aware of. Leon Balogun, who fractured a bone in his face, would be replaced by John Souttar, while Ryan Jack would be rested. What was perhaps a surprise was that Jack’s place went to Tom Lawrence rather than Nico Raskin or Dujon Sterling. The other alterations saw Ridvan Yilmaz come in at left back instead of Borna Barisic, and through the middle, Cyriel Dessers was preferred to Fabio Silva.
Aberdeen, fresh from that 1-1 draw against Celtic on Saturday, arrived with a new manager in the dugout. After dismissing Barry Robson, the Dons board decided to opt for an interim appointment, handing the reins to the experienced Neil Warnock until the end of the season. The 75-year-old boasts an impressive track record of rescuing lost causes and is a likeable character. He has given the impression that he has a soft spot for Rangers in the past, but there would be no room for sentiment in this one. Having revived and resuscitated their titles hopes, Rangers needed to be relentless and continuing to crank up the pressure on a creaking Celtic.
With the night air around the stadium crisp and cold, Dessers got the ball rolling, and inside the opening minute, a thrusting run from Matondo saw Rangers win their first corner. Tavernier’s deep delivery came to nothing, but the positive start was a portent of things to come.
After four minutes some wonderful interplay released Cantwell in the box, but his cutback was hacked away. But that merely delayed the inevitable. A lovely pass from Cantwell picked out McCausland, and when his shot was spilled by Kelle Roos, Rabbi Matondo devoured the rebound to make it two goals in two games. One down, two to go.
The fans couldn’t have asked for a better start. The players were snapping into tackles and playing fast paced attacking football when they had possession of the football. Confidence was coursing through the team, and the early exchanges were a joy to behold.
After 14 minutes, another exquisite passing move ended with a tantalising cross into the area from Yilmaz. The ball was headed out for a corner by Johnny Hayes, and after the diminutive Turk scuffed his first delivery, his second brought about howls of ‘handball’. Alas, on this occasion that wasn’t followed by the sweet sound of ‘Penalty to Rangers.’
But although Rangers dominated possession, Aberdeen still posed a threat, and Jack Butland had to be alert to beat away a shot from Jamie McGrath. The save will likely be filed in the ‘routine’ category for the Englishman, but it was a vital intervention, nonetheless.
At the midway point of the first half, Rangers boasted 79% possession, four shots on goal, four corner kicks and an 82% pass completion. The home side had made 157 passes compared to just 54 from the visitors. Dominant.
All parties were afforded an opportunity to draw breath after 25 minutes when McGrath required treatment after being struck in the face by the ball. It had been pulsating stuff, and that continued after play was restarted by referee Don Robertson.
Tavernier sliced wide on the half hour mark when well-placed in the box as Rangers continued to zip the ball around the immaculate Ibrox pitch at pace. Aberdeen did try and take the sting out of the game when they could, but more often than not, possession was turned over once again in Rangers’ favour.
Clement must have been satisfied with the opening gambit of the game, although as he prowled on the edge of the technical area, you sensed he was imploring his team to create more openings in the final third to add the goals their fine play merited.
The too-often-criticised Todd Cantwell was enjoying a superb first half. At the heart of the majority of the promising play on this his 50th appearance for Rangers, he looked in the mood, and his perfectly weighted pass sent Matondo in on goal after 38 minutes. Unfortunately, the winger dallied and by the time he released his shot, it was blocked. It should have been 2-0. Moments later, with Cantwell once again pulling the strings, Matondo fizzed in a low drive that was gathered by Roos.
A second goal before the interval was the least that Rangers deserved, and Dessers had a sight of goal, but tugged his left foot shot across goal and wide of target. But moments later, out of nothing, Aberdeen were level. A ball over the top caught Connor Goldson out, and Bojan Miovski made it two goals in two games against the Old Firm.
The goal seemed to suck some of the atmosphere out of the stadium. It took the edge of what was a more than decent first 45 minutes. Admittedly, Rangers hadn’t created many clear-cut chances, but Aberdeen hadn’t exactly troubled Jack Butland either.
The fragile mentality of this Rangers side has been to the fore on countless occasions, particularly in the early part of the season. This was a real opportunity to show to all and sundry that this group had what it took to step up and play.
Four minutes after the restart, Dessers had another opportunity, but sclaffed his left foot shot wide. The Nigerian had hustled and bustled at times, but he should have been at the very least hitting the target with chances like this. And consternation was compounded when Tavernier recklessly fired a shot from distance high into the Copland Stand.
Roos came to the rescue for Aberdeen after 53 minutes. After pawing out a shot from Matondo, he sprawled across his goal to thwart Dessers. The offside flag was raised in any case, but once again you felt that Dessers had to do better.
Clement had clearly had enough. It was time for change just 11 minutes into the second half. Matondo and Dessers were withdrawn, with Oscar Cortes and Fabio Silva pitched into the action.
On the hour mark, Rangers won four corners in quick succession. But although nothing came from any of them, the fans were roused, and their roars reached a crescendo once more. Clement has talked warmly about the synergy between the players and the supporters. The fans were playing their part, it was now up to the players to do likewise.
A tenth corner on 66 minutes almost made a breakthrough. From Ridvan’s delivery, Lawrence shot for goal, but was denied by the boot of Roos.
Once again, that final, killer pass wasn’t there for Rangers. The approach play was neat and tidy up until the final phase, but a goal wasn’t forthcoming. And then it happened. In almost a mirror image of the first goal, Lawrence shot from distance, Ross parried, and Cantwell pounced to net the rebound. Lift off!
In the remaining 15 minutes or so it was all about preserving the advantage and not doing anything sloppy like Rangers had done in the closing stages of the first. Another couple of goals would have been an added bonus.
In the mayhem that followed Cantwell’s goal, the impressive Lawrence was replaced by Dujon Sterling. His first involvement was to be wiped out by a sliding tackle on the right wing. That gave Rangers a free kick in a promising position, but Ridvan’s delivery was wild.
With five minutes to go we got our first sighting of Mohamed Diomande. He replaced the magnificent Cantwell who had arguably turned in his most impressive performance of the season to date. We hope to more of a similar ilk as the season continues.
With two minutes to go, controversy was to the fore. Sterling went in late, and Don Robertson immediately went to his top pocket and brandished a red card. He was encouraged to have another look by VAR but stood by his original decision. Clement was incensed, removing his scarf, and throwing it into the dugout. There is no doubt that Sterling’s challenge was reckless, but a yellow card would have sufficed.
All of the hullaballoo meant that eight minutes additional time were to be added. And Silva almost sealed the win inside the opening three of those extra minutes. He broke away, but with a couple of blue jerseys in support, he elected to shoot rather than pass. His effort skewed across goal and wide.
The red card had galvanised fans and players alike. The synergy was deafening. It was indeed like one of those European nights under the lights. Nerves were being shredded and fingernails nibbled as the clock ticked down. And folk were watching through the cracks in their fingers when Aberdeen were awarded a free-kick in the 97th minute following a careless foul by Cortes. Duk took it but fired wide. It was the last action of an enthralling night.
This feels like another massive step in the right direction for this team. The feeling at the end, a heady mix of relief and euphoria, is in stark contrast to the funereal mood that hung over Ibrox after Aberdeen’s last visit. The transformation has been staggering, and even if Celtic win at Easter Road tomorrow, a convincing win over Ross County in our game in hand next midweek will take us top of the league.
From Terrible to Treble, I hear you say. That may well once have been fantasy, but it could very well become reality when this remarkable topsy turvy season draws to a conclusion.