RANGERS overtook Hearts at the top of the SPFL Championship last night courtesy of a four-goal drubbing of a poor Raith Rovers side.
Scorers: Clark (16), Black (38) Law (39) McCulloch (73pen)
The men in maroon can re-take the lead with a result against Dumbarton on Clydeside this afternoon, but it can be said that on results and form so far this season, it looks as though the clubs from Ibrox and Tynecastle will fight out the title.
The gulf in class was almost painful to watch for Raith fans, who have now seen eight goals put past their side at Stark’s Park by the top two clubs in pretty identical fashion – the only difference was that there were exactly 100 more spectators for last night’s match.
Had it not been for Raith goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw, the home sponsor’s man of the match despite losing four goals, this could have been seriously embarrassing for Rovers.
Interviewed beforehand, Raith’s manager Grant Murray was at pains to point up the manifest difference between the teams, namely that Rangers had “international players”. Quite a few of them, too, as manager Ally McCoist could afford to stick Lithuanian internationalist Marius Zaliukas on the bench, one of two changes from the starting line-up against Queen of the South. Ian Black came into the midfield with Lee McCulloch taking Zaliukas’ place in defence. Of more significance was the return of Fraser Aird, restored after injury on the right side of an attacking Rangers midfield from where he tormented Raith’s defence.
Showing his eagerness to get forward, Aird fired in a rasping shot after 12 minutes that stung the palms of Laidlaw as he dived to his right to divert the ball wide. It was a portent of what was to come from Rangers’ more direct play.
The opener after 16 minutes was simplicity in itself, Aird finding himself in plenty of space on the right and firing in a fierce cross which Nicky Clark rose to meet unchallenged, directing the ball at speed with a neat head flick low down past the despairing Laidlaw.
Rangers were well in control of things now, and Raith’s defence seemed to be weathering the storm in good fashion, even if the home side’s attacking forays were few and far between.
After 32 minutes, Lewis Macleod’s right-footed curler from the left side of the box almost confused Laidlaw but he managed to flap the ball away at the last second. It was only a matter of time, though. Rangers’ second scored by Black in the 38th minute carried a huge amount of luck with it, though the first question must be why the Raith defence hung back so far and allowed Black to take several steps forward and lash a low shot goalwards. The ball deflected off the slipping Paul Watson and described a perfect parabola up and over Laidlaw
There was no luck needed for the next goal which came just 90 seconds later, Nicky Law gaining control of the ball at the edge of Raith’s penalty area, before looking up just once and sending a sublime curling shot high past Laidlaw into the postage stamp corner.
Rangers were playing shootie-in now, and Kris Boyd’s shot was deflected wide before Aird fired in another rasper from the right that only just went the wrong side of the far post with Laidlaw again beaten.
As the half-time whistle blew it was clear that this had been Rangers’ best 45 minutes of the season. The question was whether they would press home their advantage or take their collective foot off the gas. We soon had our answer as the one-way traffic continued towards Laidlaw’s goal. Boyd should have made it four early in the half but his effort slid past the post with Laidlaw beaten, and the Rangers striker then thought he had scored only for Laidlaw to somehow keep out his goalbound volley off a Lee Wallace cross.
It was Laidlaw to the rescue again seconds later, this time scrambling clear Clark’s downward header. The goalkeeper and the ball then ended up in the net but referee Brian Colvin correctly ruled that Macleod had been too rough in his challenge on the line.
Darren McGregor came upfield at a corner and flashed an effort just wide, before Laidlaw again foiled the inrushing Boyd.
The brave keeper did not need his defence assisting Rangers, which substitute Grant Anderson did by up-ending the flying Wallace in the box for a needless penalty. McCulloch duly drove the ball home low to Laidlaw’s right.
Rangers continued to press and Laidlaw continued to keep them out almost single-handedly, but it was still a one-sided match by the end, despite a late header by Mark Stewart which floated past.