IT IS the way of things in boxing that when a fighter loses his way and suffers a crisis in his career his next opponent is hand-picked by his management.
Rangers 2 (McCulloch 50; Shiels 56) Motherwell 0
They look for somebody good, but not that good, who’ll put up a fight, but not that much of a fight. The boxing analogy is apt, for something similar happened at Ibrox last night. After a seismic fall, Ally McCoist’s team made their reappearance against SPL opposition and had they run their finger through the league table they could hardly have chosen a better side to face than Motherwell, a team that has an aversion to Ibrox, no matter who is playing there; newco, oldco, Sevco or plain old Glasgow Rangers.
If this was a fight the towel would have been flung in before the hour-mark, by which time McCoist’s side had found such a level of dominance that they were two goals to the good thanks to Lee McCulloch and the excellent Dean Shiels and looked to all the world as if they were going to add to that number.
Motherwell were getting over-run. For a spell, it was just like old times, only with Shiels instead of Steven Davis and the impressive Fraser Aird instead of Steven Naismith. The names have changed but Rangers’ vice-like grip on Motherwell continues the same as it did before. For McCoist, a night to savour and breathing space following some of the abject performances his side has produced this season against teams they should have put away comfortably, but singularly failed to. For Stuart McCall, more embarrassment, pure and simple.
There were all sorts of sub-texts to this game. It was, ostensibly, a cup tie but that was the very least of it. For Motherwell, it was an opportunity to bring an end to an horrendous run against Rangers. So much for that. For Rangers, an opportunity to continue the sequence of domination and gloat like they have never gloated in the recent past, a prize they claimed when McCulloch scored in the opening minutes of the second half promptly followed by Shiels’ smart volley. “SPL, you’re having a laugh,” sang the home crowd. And they had every right. This was a comprehensive victory.
When the goals came in a flurry, Motherwell had been asking for it. Rangers began the brighter of the two and clearly had more stomach for the night than the visitors. Aird was terrific, constantly calling for the ball, constantly trying to do things and constantly coming back for more when it didn’t quite happen for him. Soon, every last one of the Rangers team started to win their individual battles, even in defence, an area of weakness all season.
Motherwell came here with none of the swagger we saw in Pittodrie, none of the slick football and brio they have displayed for weeks. This is a team that had gone unbeaten in domestic competition all season but a first visit to Ibrox saw them wasteful and anxious, a shadow of their previous selves.
They had Chris Humphrey out wide and had the guy still been there this morning he would not have put a decent delivery into the Rangers’ penalty area. Credit the pressure the Rangers men put him under. Prowling in the box they had Michael Higdon, scorer of seven goals in his last four games and yet Higdon had virtually nothing to live on for the entire game; no decent pass to get on the end of, no inviting cross to nut on goal, nothing. Up against a defence that has looked panic-stricken in the Third Division, Higdon must have been licking his lips but he never really stood a chance given how poor his team-mates were around him.
The seasoned Motherwell watchers pretty much sensed this was coming. The more people told them that, on form, their team would win the more they shook their heads in a knowing sort of way and spoke of history. Motherwell have not beaten Rangers in ten years, since James McFadden ruled Fir Park. They haven’t won at Ibrox in 15 years when Owen Coyle was the go-to man up front and Alex McLeish was the manager. Stattos say that, in all the games since McFadden scored the winner in this fixture in 2002, the aggregate score between the sides has been 89-26. No wonder we had to factor in the Bottle Effect last night.
On the face of it, Motherwell should have won, but this is a side that has routinely filled its drawers every time they have set foot near a blue jersey. Even in McCall’s time since his appointment in December 2010 they have conceded 21 goals in games with Rangers and have scored only two. Sure, the SPL’s pace-setters were favourites, but…
Rangers had no Ian Black and no David Templeton and no Francisco Sandaza after an early clash of heads with Shane Hutchinson. But they had nearly all the chances. Shiels, the livewire, set up McCulloch on the half-hour and he should have done better than hit his shot straight at Darren Randolph. At the other end, Neil Alexander had to be alert to get up to clear from Nicky Law, but mostly Motherwell barely existed.
The decisive moments came in a seven-minute spell; Shiels crossing for McCulloch to head in via a post and then Anestis Argyriou sending in a ball for Shiels to volley home beautifully. It could have been more, but it was enough. More than enough.
Rangers: Alexander, Faure, Perry, Emilson Cribari, Wallace, Argyriou, McCulloch, Macleod, Aird (McKay 81), Sandaza (Hutton 24), Shiels (Crawford 75). Subs Not Used: Gallacher, Stella.
Motherwell: Randolph, Kerr, Hutchinson, Cummins, Hammell (Francis-Angol 65), Humphrey (Daley 72), Hateley (Murphy 64), Lasley, Law, Ojamaa, Higdon. Subs Not Used: Hollis, Ramsden.