MARK WARBURTON sustained the first loss on his balance sheet as Rangers manager on a night when a street-smart St Johnstone side delivered a sharp reality check and sent the previously revitalised Ibrox team spinning out of the League Cup.
After 11 consecutive wins since his appointment, former city trader Warburton saw defensive flaws ruthlessly exposed by the first Premiership opposition he has faced.
Tommy Wright’s team forged a 2-0 half-time lead through Murray Davidson and Simon Lappin, then added to it through Michael O’Halloran at the start of the second half. James Tavernier’s goal offered brief hope to a Rangers side who dominated possession for long spells but a full recovery was beyond them.
As has been their modus operandi under Warburton, the hosts looked to set a sharp tempo to proceedings from the start, but found themselves picked off consistently and expertly on the counter-attack by Wright’s men.
Rangers appeared vulnerable to cross balls every time St Johnstone worked themselves into threatening positions on the flanks. Wes Foderingham was at his sharpest to prevent the visitors making the breakthrough after just four minutes, the Rangers goalkeeper stretching full length to turn a Lappin shot behind after Joe Shaughnessy’s long throw caused panic in the home defence.
Foderingham had no answer when Saints did take the lead 14 minutes later. O’Halloran’s pace and directness proved too hot for Danny Wilson to handle as the striker got to the byline and whipped over a low cross. The ball was flicked on intelligently by Steven MacLean at the near post to leave Davidson with a simple close-range tap-in.
It was the first time since the opening day of the season at Easter Road back in July that Rangers had found themselves behind in a match. There would be no comeback to win 6-2 this time.
St Johnstone’s lead should have been doubled in the 21st minute, MacLean contriving to scoop the ball over from little more than a yard out after O’Halloran’s low cross had again exposed the Rangers defence.
Warburton’s side enjoyed plenty of possession as they tried to find a response but generally lacked the required incisiveness to make it count.
Gedion Zelalem flashed a 25-yard shot narrowly wide, then Kenny Miller forced a decent save from Alan Mannus but St Johnstone were fairly comfortable with their advantage. Even more so when they made it 2-0 in the 29th minute.
Rangers were guilty of poor defending once more, leaving Lappin unmarked as he latched onto David Wotherspoon’s corner on the edge of the penalty area, but there was no doubting the quality of the midfielder’s stunning left foot shot which beat Foderingham low to his left.
It was a degree of adversity this Rangers side were simply not accustomed to and their hopes of mounting a second half salvage mission suffered a major setback when Saints made it 3-0 just 55 seconds after the restart. Wilson and Rob Kiernan were both caught out by MacLean’s through ball as O’Halloran outpaced them before stabbing a shot home from ten yards.
While the small band of Saints fans savoured the moment, the home support were understandably shell-shocked. The Rangers players, however, declined to feel sorry for themselves and intensified their efforts to reclaim a foothold in the tie.
Nathan Oduwa came close when he cut in from the left and clipped the top of the crossbar with a firm shot. With a fresh sense of momentum in their work, Rangers pulled a goal back in the 62nd minute.
It was a seventh of the season for James Tavernier, the right-back making a now trademark surge into the penalty area before lashing a right foot shot high beyond Mannus into the roof of the net.
It was one-way traffic now and Martyn Waghorn should have further reduced the arrears just a minute later, the striker wastefully heading wide from close range after being picked out by Zelalem’s cross.
St Johnstone held firm to secure their passage to the quarter-finals, while Rangers must re-address their primary focus on the Championship title race.
Rangers: Foderingham, Tavernier, Kiernan, Wilson, Wallace; Zelalem (Ba McKay 75), Halliday (Law 75), Holt (Shiels 53); Waghorn, Miller, Oduwa. Subs not used: Kelly, Ball, Aird, Hardie.
St Johnstone: Mannus, Shaughnessy, Mackay, Scobbie, Easton; Wotherspoon, Davidson, Millar, Lappin (Craig 67); O’Halloran (Cummins 73), MacLean. Subs not used: Clark, Anderson, Sutton, Br McKay, Caddis.