Saints March In, Rangers March On

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By Alistair Aird

With five sleeps to go until the person in the red suit descends our chimneys to put presents under our tree, everyone is starting to be filled with festive cheer. But it’s been looking a lot like Christmas around Ibrox for a wee while now, as Rangers fans have already had gifts bestowed upon them and are of a sunnier disposition than they were as recently as nine weeks ago. Under the tutelage of Philippe Clement, the Light Blues have slashed the gap at the top of the table to five points having played two games less, qualified for the last 16 of the Europa League as Group C winners, and witnessed their captain, the irrepressible James Tavernier, hoisting aloft the first piece of major domestic silverware in the shape of the League Cup

In the midst of a glut of games, it was no surprise to see Clement make some personnel changes for the visit of St Johnstone. There were five in total; Souttar, Yilmaz, Dowell, Lammers and Roofe replacing Balogun, Barisic, Sterling, Cantwell and Dessers.

The inclusion of Dowell raised some eyebrows. Beset by injury recently, this was only his fourth league start of the season. And he would adopt an unfamiliar position too. Ostensibly a number 10 or an attacking midfielder, the expectation was that he would play deeper in this one, more of a number six alongside the rejuvenated John Lundstram.

As expected of a side managed by Craig Levein, St Johnstone adopted the lowest of low blocks and that made for a scratchy opening that saw Rangers try and pick their way through what was two banks of five clad in white. Clear cut chances were at a premium as a result.

Rangers were forced to make a change after only 15 minutes. Moments after he had a long-range effort blocked, Roofe, who has an awful record when it comes to injury, succumbed again. His place was taken by Cyriel Dessers. Arguably the best finisher at the club, it must be time now to accept that Roofe will never string together a consistent run of games. With his contract expiring at the end of the season, it would be folly to contemplate offering the Jamaican a new one.

As the clock ticked on to 20 minutes, the stats showed how the game had evolved. Rangers had 71% possession, but had only mustered two shots at goal, one of which was off target while the other was blocked. The home side also had made 147 passes compared to the 64 of the visitors. But while they had monopolised possession, Rangers had been slack too, surrendering the ball on 38 occasions. If Levein had a gameplan to subdue and supress, then it was working.

But after 28 minutes, the stubborn resistance was broken. Tavernier made it 123 assists in a Rangers jersey – coupled with 116 goals, that’s just astounding – looping a ball over the top, and when Oludare Olufunwa missed it, Dessers pounced and volleyed a shot through the goalkeeper’s legs. A VAR check for a possible offside followed, but the goal stood. Nice one, Cyriel, that’s now nine for the season for the often-criticised Rangers number nine.

VAR was involved again immediately after the restart. Diallang Jaiesimi was guilty of a dreadful, lunging challenge on Lundstram. He was booked, but when referee, Alan Muir, was called to the screen, the outcome was inevitable. Yellow became red, and the visitors were reduced to 10 men.

Rangers almost doubled their lead when Dessers stung the palms of Mitov, but a goal to the good and a man up, you felt that it would only be a matter of time until the home side found the net again. Lammers then volleyed a cushioned pass from Dessers towards goal, but he too was denied by the St Johnstone goalkeeper.

Dowell had prodded and probed throughout the first half and with two minutes to go to the break, his superb slide rule pass should have played in Dessers. But the Nigerian’s first touch was heavy, and the ball drifted through to Mitov. The former Norwich man had accurately executed 24 of his 28 passes and was looking comfortable in a position that wasn’t familiar to him.

The VAR interventions meant that seven minutes were added on at the end of the first half. In the additional time, Goldson was booked for tugging back Chris Kane – it was a needles foul from the Rangers vice-captain – but other than a fizzing shot from Tavernier that zipped wide of the far post, there wasn’t much more to take note of.

The first half stats showed how lopsided this contest had been. Rangers, with 73% possession, had 11 shots at goal, St Johnstone had none. Indeed, Jack Butland had only touched the ball 11 times. In contrast, Dimitar Mitov had made two saves and touched the ball 25 times. In truth, he should have had more work to do as Rangers were guilty of errant passing and finishing in the final third. Only three of their 10 shots were on target.

Although the home side were untroubled, a one-goal lead is a precarious one so one assumes that Clement would be stressing that point in the dressing room. The Belgian would most likely have also expressed his displeasure at the ragged nature of some of Rangers’ play too. It hadn’t been vintage, but winning ugly is a trait that is often associated with champions in sport.

Perhaps feeling the effects of the earlier challenge that saw Jaiesimi ordered off, Lundstram was replaced by Sterling at half time. The home side now had an attacking midfielder and a full back in the holding roles in midfield, so with Raskin and Jack also absent, it had to be hoped that if the Englishman was injured then it wouldn’t be for the medium or long term. Even a short term lay off would be a blow to Rangers given how much of an impact Lundstram has had lately.

Abdallah Sima was the first to threaten after the restart. He managed to wrap his foot around a corner from Tavernier, but his shot skewed wide of target.

St Johnstone had all hands to the pump as they tried to stem the blue tide. Mitov stooped low to deny Lammers after 52 minutes and then Tavernier scooped a shot from distance high over the bar. It was relentless from Rangers, but once again that killer final pass and decisive finishing touch was proving elusive. This was illustrated after 57 minutes when a Tavernier cross was easily pouched by Mitov.

The St Johnstone goalkeeper was earning his corn. Twice inside a minute he produced saves to thwart first Dessers and then Lammers. That took his save count to six, while at the other end, Butland had added a mere four touches to the 11 he had in the opening 45 minutes.

Sima was presented with a good opportunity to scire after 67 minutes but sliced his volley wide. It was his last contribution too as he was replaced by Scott Wright. Todd Cantwell was introduced too, with Lammers making way.

The Dutchman was loose and languid again. Although he had three attempts on target, he lost possession 11 times and made no key passes. We need to see much more return from him considering the financial outlay to get him to Ibrox, but unlike Dessers, who has shown some talent in flashes recently, notably in Seville, Lammers remains in the ‘flatters to deceive’ category.

Tavernier volleyed into the side netting after 73 minutes, but although the Saints were on the ropes, still no one in blue could deliver the knockout blow. And that caused some nervousness to start to ripple around the stands as the clock ticked on to 80 minutes.

But what better way to settle those nerves than to hear the shout ‘PENALTY TO RANGERS’. Wright played a lovely ball through to Dessers and when he rounded Mitov, he was brought crashing to the turf. There was no need for VAR, this one was of the stonewall variety. Tavernier scored from the spot with consummate ease.

There was a late flurry of activity around Butland’s goal, but Rangers held firm to chalk up clean sheet number 11 in the league this season. The solidity of the defence is often overlooked. In 17 Premiership games, Butland has conceded only eight goals. And three of them were in one match, against Aberdeen at Ibrox in September.

Come the end of the season, we probably won’t look back on this match fondly. But points win prizes, and the three points secured could go a long way to ensuring our name is inscribed on the Scottish Premiership trophy. The gap at the top is now two points, and Rangers still have a game in hand. The pressure is back on Celtic as they face Livingston at home on Saturday before Rangers travel to Fir Park on Sunday. It’s then Dundee away for Celtic and Ross County at home for Rangers before the behemoths lock horns on 30 December.

That one already has the makings of a pivotal fixture as the pendulum of power continues to swing back in the favour of Rangers. An away win would be a proper statement on intent and reinforce that this Rangers side has the mental strength to go the distance.

But before then there are another two key games to take care of as the quest for a 56th league title continues.

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