Over the past year and a half, cup competitions, not league games, have been the best gauge of Rangers’ standing as a team.
Falkirk 0-2 Rangers
Scorers: Law (90), Templeton (90)
If their win against Motherwell in last season’s League Cup suggested they could maintain their standards as a top-flight club despite being in the bottom division, that impression was undone by a defeat from Caley Thistle in the next round, and then by Dundee United in the Scottish Cup.
After August’s League Cup defeat by Forfar, in which Ally McCoist was unable to play any of his new signings, Saturday’s Scottish Cup fourth-round match at Falkirk was the first chance to see how the manager’s current team would measure up against opponents from a higher division – and against the bookmakers’ assessment of them as second favourites to win the competition.
On the positive side, they won, and deserve credit for persevering to make the breakthrough in the closing moments of the game. But Falkirk played the better football, looked more coherent as a team, and arguably missed out on a replay only because they had to play the last half-hour with ten men after David McCracken’s dismissal.
There were two debatable elements to the offence against Nicky Clark that saw McCracken red-carded: was it a foul at all, and was it in the penalty box? Referee Brian Colvin took some time to deliberate before saying yes to both questions, but Rangers did not benefit immediately, as Lee McCulloch’s soft spot-kick was saved by Michael McGovern.
By that time, McCoist’s team had taken the upper hand, and were pressing more persistently than they had done in the first half. But, while Lewis Macleod and Lee Wallace linked up to good effect down the left, too many Rangers players looked flat.
The arrival off the bench of Fraser Aird and David Templeton for the final 25 minutes gave the visitors some extra impetus, and within a minute of coming on Aird crashed the ball off the crossbar. Having survived that scare, Falkirk kept their shape well, but could do little about the two goals that knocked them out.
First, an Ian Black free-kick was floated into the box and cleared only as far as Nicky Law, who scored with a first-time shot. Then Aird found Templeton with a through ball into the box, and the former Hearts player showed good skill to find the net with a low, placed shot.
After playing his part in overcoming opponents who are currently fourth in the Championship, Macleod suggested his team would be undaunted whatever the outcome of this afternoon’s fifth-round draw.
“We’d be confident whoever we got,” he said. “We’re playing some good football and creating good chances. It was just unfortunate today that some of them didn’t fall for us.
“If it’s Celtic or Arbroath, whoever is in front of you, you have to try and go out and beat them. Whoever we got, we’d be happy to take them on.”
It won’t literally be Arbroath, as they were knocked out by Brechin in the third round. Macleod’s point was that Rangers will be ready for whatever the draw throws up, even if, as he admitted, other clubs will be more optimistic of their chances against them than they would have been a couple of years ago.
“Your aim is to win every game, and if we can keep doing that in the cup, then there’s no reason why we won’t be in the final,” he said. “That’s always the aim. “I think other clubs will want to play us. Falkirk were looking forward to the game today and they would have fancied themselves against us. They did well for the first half and the majority of the second, but we got the goal.
“It would be a massive achievement to get into a final whatever team you are, but especially with what has happened to the club over the last couple of years. To get into a final would be brilliant for the fans and all the boys as well.”
Falkirk came desperately close to reaching last season’s final, having been 3-0 up against Hibs at half-time in the semi-final before losing 4-3. Midfielder Conor McGrandles thinks it is improbable that Rangers will make it all the way this season, and compared this defeat to his club’s 5-0 loss to Aberdeen in the League Cup back in September.
“Based on the two performances, I thought Aberdeen were the better team,” he said. “Personally, I can’t [see Rangers winning the cup].
“There’s better teams than them in the competition, but we reached the semi-final last year. I don’t think it matters your quality, it’s sometimes just how much you want it.
“They’ll do well [in the Championship]. They’ve got top quality players. I don’t think they’re much better than us, but they’ll do well in this league.”
One indication of the increasing competitiveness of Gary Holt’s squad was McGrandles’ willingness to stand up to Black when he thought the Rangers player had fouled him off the ball. “The ball came into me, I let it run through, then I felt he kicked me,” McGrandles said of his opponent.
“He’d done it before, twice, so I was really unhappy. So I thought I’d have a wee go at him. He was just staring at me: I was shouting at him. I thought it was a malicious tackle. I just thought he kicked me for no reason, but sometimes players do that.”
Black won the Scottish Cup with Hearts in 2012, Lee McCulloch won it with Rangers in 2007 and 2008, and some of their colleagues are undeniably of the quality that leads to trophies. The team as a whole, however, continues to look flawed. No matter Macleod’s optimism, you suspect they will be pleased if they avoid Celtic, and a few other Premiership teams, in the next round.
Referee: B Colvin