Motherwell maintained their resurgence as a competitive force under Stephen Robinson’s management to reach only the fourth League Cup final in their history and rekindle the flames of pressure which constantly seem to lick around the feet of Pedro Caixinha.
On an afternoon to relish for the Lanarkshire club at Hampden, two second-half goals from Louis Moult earned them a return to the national stadium next month for the first showpiece occasion of the season against holders Celtic.
For Caixinha, it was another damning indictment on a charge sheet which leaves his credibility as Rangers manager yet again under intense strain.
It was the Portuguese coach’s seventh defeat in his 25 games in charge of the Ibrox side and, since his appointment in March, he has still to string together three consecutive victories.
It is hardly the kind of return anticipated by the Rangers board for the heavy investment made in Caixinha’s overhaul of the squad he inherited from Mark Warburton. Chairman Dave King, at Hampden yesterday to personally scrutinise the progress being made during a rare trip to Scotland from his South African home, could only have been dismayed by most of what he witnessed.
That Motherwell’s match-winner Moult was among the Scottish-based transfer targets Rangers failed to sign in the summer simply accentuated the failure of so many of Caixinha’s recruits, notably the desperately out of touch Carlos Pena, to make the impact demanded of them with a cup final place at stake.
Rangers had gripes with the refereeing of Steven McLean, who eventually sent both Caixinha and Robinson to the stand after an angry touchline flare-up between the pair, but were ultimately culpable in their own downfall. They missed several premium chances and then lacked both the grit and guile to recover after Moult put Motherwell ahead.
Caixinha cut a typically animated figure on the touchline from the start and McLean was the focus of his attention on several occasions – or, to be more accurate, fourth official Alan Muir, who bore the brunt of his fury at a couple of decisions involving Alfredo Morelos.
The Colombian striker, seeking to impose himself on the physically powerful Motherwell back three of Peter Hartley, Cedric Kipre and Charles Dunne, caught a stray hand in the face from Hartley, which went unpunished by McLean.
If Caixinha was upset about that incident, it was nothing compared to his incensed reaction when Morelos, poised to burst straight through on goal, was taken down by Dunne’s clumsy challenge. Again, McLean waved play on to stoke the sense of grievance being felt by Caixinha.
The uncompromising nature of the contest wasn’t of the one-way variety, however, and Fabio Cardoso also escaped any sanction when his flailing elbow left Moult with a cut above his right eye.
If the quality of football on display wasn’t always the most aesthetically pleasing, it was certainly of the compelling variety as both teams enjoyed spells in the ascendancy and created several good openings.
Moult would have expected to do better with a half chance on the turn inside the Rangers penalty area, directing a tame shot straight at Jak Alnwick, who retained his status as first-choice keeper for Caixinha in this competition.
Morelos almost saw his frustrations eased when he pounced on Kipre’s hesitancy under a high ball, only to cut his left-foot shot narrowly wide of Trevor Carson’s left hand post.
Rangers enjoyed a good spell of pressure when Josh Windass and Daniel Candeias swapped wings to cause uncertainty in the Motherwell defence. Windass should have scored when picked out by Candeias, but drove his low shot straight at Carson.
But it was Motherwell who came closest to scoring before the interval. When Rangers failed to clear a corner, Cipre’s close-range shot was cleared off the line by Ryan Jack before Alnwick made an instinctive save at the feet of Ryan Bowman.
Declan John, again regularly showing his attacking instincts from left-back for Rangers, almost provided the perfect response when he found space to get on the end of a swift counter-attack and sent his diving header just wide from a Candeias cross.
Pena and Windass passed up further inviting opportunities at the start of the second half and Rangers paid for their profligacy when Motherwell made their 52nd-minute breakthrough. Alnwick was deceived by a wicked inswinging corner from Chris Cadden and after Hartley struck the frame of the goal from close range and Moult’s first effort was blocked on the line by Jack, the striker rammed his tenth goal of the season high into the net.
Bowman, booked in the first half for an elbow on Cardoso, was fortunate to escape a second yellow card for a repeat offence on the same player. The Portuguese defender left the field with a burst and bloodied nose, replaced by Ross McCrorie.
The incident was the tipping point for Caixinha whose confrontation with Robinson saw both managers watch the rest of the game from the stand.
Robinson’s view was by far the most pleasing as he saw Moult seal the victory with a brilliant lofted finish over Alnwick from around 30 yards. The game was up for Rangers, who were also lucky to finish it with a full complement, captain Bruno Alves, inset, receiving no sanction for a clash with Moult in which both men appeared to kick out at each other on the ground.