RANGERS will face top-flight opposition for the first time in more than a year after finally completing their often tortuous passage to the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup.
Scorers: Aird 18′, Daly 57′
Goals by Fraser Aird and Jon Daly – the big striker claiming his 24th goal of the season – brought an end to a memorable run in the tournament by League Two strugglers Albion Rovers and secured Ally McCoist’s side a semi-final on home turf at Ibrox against Dundee United on 12 April.
It was United who ended Rangers’ interest in the Scottish Cup last season with a comprehensive 3-0 victory at Tannadice and next month’s tie will provide a genuine measure of how much progress the League 1 champions have made since then.
Last night’s victory stretched their current unbeaten run to
37 matches and the performance was at least an improvement on the much-criticised display at home to Rovers nine days earlier. But it would hardly have caused Dundee United manager Jackie McNamara, looking on from the Sky Sports studio, any sense of dread about the last four showdown.
For Albion Rovers, the adventure may be over but the Coatbridge club are around £300,000 better off as a consequence of their two live televised games against Rangers.
McCoist handed a significant vote of confidence to Calum Gallagher, the teenager having scored when making his first- team debut as a late substitute in Saturday’s 2-0 league victory over Dunfermline at Ibrox, and was rewarded by another eye-catching contribution from the prospect.
Rovers, having fielded two trialists in a completely changed line-up for their weekend defeat by Queen’s Park, reverted to the 11 men who had performed so heroically at Ibrox in the first match and in whom manager Ward had placed such public faith in their ability to complete the job in this replay.
Ward’s men began in a manner which reflected his confidence, posting the first attempt on goal in the opening minute when David Crawford’s looping header was comfortably saved by Cammy Bell. But their game plan was mostly focused on limiting the time and space Rangers had on the ball, a strategy they had carried out to considerable effect in the first meeting.
Until Aird made the breakthrough in the 18th minute, it looked to be working a treat again as Rangers toiled to work their way beyond a congested midfield area or find space behind a well-drilled Rovers back four. But that changed when Gallagher, eager for possession in his advanced right midfield role in the 4-2-3-1 formation deployed by McCoist, used both power and pace to get beyond left-back Barry Russell and whip over a terrific cross. It found Aird at the near post and the Scotland Under-19 international gave Rovers goalkeeper Neil Parry no chance with a well-struck right-foot volley from close range.
The part-timers now had to modify their tactics to incorporate a greater degree of attacking intent and, to their great credit, they almost equalised eight minutes later. A good passage of play stretched the Rangers defence, presenting Crawford with a shooting opportunity from around 14 yards. He struck his effort sweetly, but just a little too close to Bell who was able to make a decent reaction save.
Rangers tried to increase the tempo in their pursuit of a second goal and Bilel Mohsni, whose distribution was utterly dismal at times, had Parry scrambling to his left to anxiously usher a long-range shot by the French defender narrowly wide.
Ciaran Donnelly, Rovers’ goalscorer at Ibrox, then came close to putting the ball into his own net when he glanced a header just beyond Parry’s right-hand post under pressure from Jon Daly. Rangers were ramping up the pressure, although much of their work was lacking in poise and invention.
Aird tried his luck from distance and his powerful right-foot shot was deflected over by Mark McGuigan’s sliding intervention. Gallagher then ended one of Rangers’ better passing moves with a shot straight at Parry but McCoist’s men had to content themselves with their single-goal advantage at the interval.
Rovers found themselves increasingly hemmed into their own defensive third of the pitch in the second half, simply unable to fashion the counter-attacking opportunities they needed to get back into the tie. A second goal for Rangers seemed inevitable as they began to find more space in and around their opponents’ visibly tiring defence. Daly was unable to divert a fierce low cross by Lee Wallace on target from close range, then Mohsni should have done better than head an Aird corner wide of Parry’s right-hand post from around six yards.
But Rangers finally doubled their lead in the 57th minute with a well-constructed move which pulled the Rovers defenders out of position. Gallagher and Daly combined to work the ball to Richard Foster on the right. The full-back had time to measure his cross and it found Daly at the far post, the big Irishman guiding his header back beyond Parry and into the corner of the net. For the first time in this tie, Rangers had some breathing space and there was a more relaxed aspect of their work as they sought to add to their tally in the closing half hour. Gallagher was unfortunate to see a shot from Lee McCulloch’s cross take a deflection off team-mate Nicky Law, allowing Parry to make a simple save.
There was nothing simple about Parry’s next intervention, the ’keeper reacting brilliantly to divert the ball behind for a corner after Ross Dunlop’s attempted clearance had cannoned off Law to send it towards the top corner.
Albion Rovers: Parry, Reid, M.Dunlop, R.Dunlop, Russell; Donnelly, Phillips (Tiffney 81), Chaplain, Cusack (Flood 77), McGuigan; Crawford (Walker 60). Subs not used: McGinley, Kennedy, Innes, Maguire.
Rangers: Bell, Foster, Mohsni, McCulloch, Wallace; Black, Hutton (Faure 81); Gallagher (Clark 71), Law, Aird; Daly. Subs not used: Simonsen, Peralta, Crawford, Smith, Shiels.