By Alistair Aird
On 21 January 2022, Rangers enjoyed a routine 4-0 victory over Stirling Albion in the Scottish Cup. The supporters purred over the performance of academy graduate, Alex Lowry, who came off the bench to score the opening goal before strutting around the pitch with good, old fashioned gallusness. The player Lowry replaced after a quarter of an hour was Ianis Hagi. Nothing seemed amiss when the Romanian went down in the middle of the park, but it soon became apparent that he would be missing from action for a considerable time.
Damage to his anterior cruciate ligament required surgery, sidelining one of the most creative influences in the first team squad. His season was over, and such was the impact he had, many observers felt that a fit Hagi may well have made a difference against Eintracht Frankfurt in Seville. His numbers add weight to that argument, with Hagi scoring 15 goals and claiming 21 assists in the 85 appearances he has made in a Rangers jersey thus far.
But the long road to recovery ended today when Hagi was included in the matchday squad for the visit of St Johnstone. Buoyed by a goal and an assist in a bounce game, the Romanian was listed on a strong substitutes bench that included Antonio Colak, John Lundstram, and Fashion Sakala. Although not ready for 90 minutes, one suspected we would see Hagi marauding down the wing at some point.
Sakala, who has been in magnificent form recently, was perhaps unfortunate to drop out of the XI. The Zambian has scored three goals and registered four assists in his last eight appearances, but he stepped aside as Todd Cantwell was handed his debut. Thus far our only signing in the January transfer window, the former Norwich City player spoke candidly and eloquently when he was unveiled to the media midweek, and his purchase now gives Michael Beale a plethora of options on the right-hand side of the attack. So often a troublesome position to fill, Beale now has Cantwell, Sakala, Hagi, and Scott Wright available. Even the lesser-spotted Rabbi Matondo could be counted as an option, although his exclusion for yet another squad suggested that his time at Ibrox may well be coming to an end.
But whilst there may be an embarrassment of riches on the right, the attack remains lopsided, with only really Ryan Kent available to play on the left, although he has had more free reign to roam under Beale. This may be something Beale will look to address either in this window or in the summer.
Three minutes shy of 3pm the teams were led out by representatives of our Armed Forces. They were given richly deserved recognition, and there a chorus or two of ‘Rule Britania’ reached a crescendo as well.
Rangers set up as expected. Cantwell was wide right, and he enjoyed a few early touches of the ball. And we immediately saw that he would have the same fluid and flexible role that we have seen Ryan Kent enjoy under Beale. It looked like another attacker was going to be given licence to wreak havoc on an opposition rear-guard, and Cantwell has admitted this was one of the many things that temoted him to swap Carrow Road for Ibrox.
Candy-striped St Johnstone had exited the Scottish Cup against Rangers seven days ago, and they arrived at Ibrox in the midst of a wretched spell of form. Callum Davidson’s side had lost five on the spin in the Premiership, and their predicament was summed up when one of those defeats was at the hands of an Aberdeen side that was unceremoniously dumped by Darvel in the Scottish Cup last Monday.
It looked like it would be a straightforward mission for Beale’s side, but the opening minutes were stodgy. Morelos had an opportunity to score after six minutes when he was played in by Tillman, but Remi Matthews blocked his attempt. It was another of those chances that you felt the Morelos of old would have devoured, but his hunger and appetite for goals doesn’t seem to be the same as it used to be.
He would still get chances, though, such was the creativity and guile of the players behind him. Cantwell was one of them, and he linked well with Tavernier after nine minutes and sprung into the inside right channel. But his cross was skewed over the bar when Morelos was well-placed on the six-yard line. And moments later, El Buffalo had another sight of goal, but his effort was deflected wide for a corner.
The play from the home side was much more enterprising now, and after 13 minutes, we had the breakthrough. James Brown was perhaps harshly penalised for handball, and the cry of ‘PENALTY TO RANGERS’ was raised to the rafters. Tavernier then did what Tavernier tends to do from twelve yards, netted with aplomb. The captain now moved to 93 Rangers goals, 47 of which have come from the penalty spot. To date, he has only failed to score from the spot on 10 occasions, although that stat doesn’t account for penalties in a shoot out.
Morelos missed another gilt-edged chance after 22 minutes, failing to beat Matthews in a one-v-one, and it looked like it was going to be another one of those days for the Colombian. Another effort went askew a few minutes later too. There can be no doubting the contribution that Morelos has made to the football club – 119 goals and 55 assists in 252 appearances – but with each week that passes, it seems more and more apparent that he will be plying his trade elsewhere next season.
In a rare forward foray, former Rangers striker Nicky Clark hooked a clever effort a shade too high. It was a warning shot for Rangers, and they sprung to the other end. Kent dipped his shoulder and got the ball on to his right foot, but his bending effort from distance was parried away by Matthews.
Rangers were in control of the game, and their cause was helped further when the visitors were reduced to ten men after 34 minutes. Nicky Clark went in hard on Ryan Jack and left the Ranges man writhing in agony. As Jack received treatment, Willie Collum brandished a red card. The decision perplexed many onlookers, but the whistler’s decision was later verified by VAR.
Jack recovered and looked to be seeking retribution when he lunged into a challenge in the penalty area. He was issued with a yellow card, but Collum was invited to have another look on the VAR screen. He deliberated and cogitated before eventually sticking with his original decision.
As half time approached, Kent ducked and danced and looked set for a shot at goal before he was crudely chopped down on the edge of the penalty area by Brown. This was Tavernier territory, and the captain bent a beautiful effort towards goal that was clawed away by the impressive Matthews. Given a goalkeeper is on the radar for Rangers, they should perhaps consider making a move for the man who is currently on loan at the Saints from Crystal Palace.
The interventions from VAR resulted in six minutes being added on at the end of the first half, but although Rangers enjoyed plenty of possession, they couldn’t penetrate a stoic and steadfast red and white line. Indeed, the best opportunity to score fell to St Johnstone, but although Drey Wright rounded Allan McGregor, he stumbled in the act of shooting and the chance to equalise was gone.
The teams therefore headed to their respective dressing rooms with the home side a goal to the good. And the stats showed how dominant Rangers had been. The Light Blues had had 76% possession, 10 shots at goal, seven of which were on target. 89% of their 361 passes were accurate too. In contrast, St Johnstone had only executed 113 passes, 68% of which found their intended target.
Michael Beale made a change ahead of the restart, and it was a sensible one. Ryan Jack, on a yellow card, was withdrawn and replaced by John Lundstram. It was like-for-like and removed the risk that one late or mistimed tackle could result in Jack picking up a second booking in the second 45.
Rangers forced an early corner when Tavernier’s free-kick was sliced wide. Barisic’s short corner came to nothing, but in the attack that followed, Morelos fired a tantalising delivery across the face of the goal. Cantwell then had the chance to open his account, but he spooned a Barisic cutback over the bar with his left foot.
Rangers were showing a relentlessness in their play, pinning St Johnstone back, and Matthews had to produce a wonderful save after 51 minutes to thwart Kent. Tillman, who was prominent throughout, then drew his leg back to unleash a volley at the back post but struck his effort into the ground and it bounced wide of target.
But that single goal lead was a precarious one, and that may well have been the reason why there were some dissenting voices in the crowd. A second goal would have alleviated those concerns, and it duly arrived when Morelos slipped the ball into the path of Glen Kamara, who kept calm and composed to stroke the ball into the corner of the net.
The question now was ‘how many?’, and eyes also turned to the dugout to see if Beale would make use of the attacking options he had at his disposal. Would he give some minutes to Hagi, or would he give the fans a rare treat by bringing on Colak and partnering him with Morelos?
Beale did make a change, and it was in that right-sided role in attack. Sakala came on for Cantwell and almost scored with his first touch, meeting a Tavernier free-kick with his head, but he couldn’t direct his effort on target. In terms of Cantwell, he had a quiet but effective debut. He showed some nice touches in the 53 he had and was willing to stretch the St Johnstone defence as he went looking for possession. His passing accuracy was a solid 88.1%, and he will be a useful addition once he gets up to speed and gets to know his team-mates.
After 72 minutes, Hagi was back. He was called in by Michael Beale and joined Scott Wright and Colak on the touchline. He received warm applause from the home supporters who were all starting to feel the drop in temperature as afternoon gave way to early evening in Glasgow. The trio replaced Tillman, Morelos, and Kent, and it must be a terrific boost for the manager to be able to replace each of the four attackers who started the game with another four who would be first picks for a number of club sides across Europe.
The new front four set up with Sakala on the right, Wright on the left, Colak central and Hagi as the number 10. And Hagi looked hungry to get involved immediately. There was rustiness undoubtedly – amply illustrated when he overcooked a pass intended for Barisic – but he was always showing for a pass and looking to keep Rangers on the front foot. He also wasn’t particularly enamoured by a late challenge from Daniel Phillips, and his dissent earned him a yellow card.
The game was petering out. Sakala had a chance to add a third goal, but his effort spun into the side netting after taking a deflection. Another deflected effort almost sneaked in at the near post too. But despite huffing and puffing, a third Rangers goal was not forthcoming. It was, nonetheless, a comfortable win, Beale’s ninth in the 10 games he has taken charge of.
Having become stagnant under Giovanni van Bronckhorst, the momentum since Michael Beale took over as Rangers manager two months ago keeps building and gathering pace. The Light Blues haven’t quite managed to ruthlessly kill teams off, but this match was one in which you felt they sustained their dominance throughout. With new recruits a possibility before the window shuts on Tuesday and others like Tom Lawrence and John Souttar returning from injury, there’s much more depth in the squad, with quality players waiting in the wings if those entrusted with a starting jersey don’t perform. That’s an essential requirement at a club like Rangers and bodes well for the season ahead.
The quest for success continues, and season 2022/23 still has the potential to be silver-laden for the boys in red, white, and blue.