Rangers completed their unblemished progress through the group stage of the League Cup as they confirmed their place in the knockout phase with an untroubled victory over Stranraer.
Martyn Waghorn’s first-half double was garnished by Niko Kranjcar’s sumptuous second-half strike, the Croatian midfielder sealing an aesthetically pleasing individual display with his first goal for the Ibrox club.
Mark Warburton’s men take top spot in Group F with maximum points and no goals conceded from their four fixtures which have essentially formed the core of their pre-season programme which will conclude with Saturday’s visit of Premier League side Burnley.
Another healthy attendance of almost 30,000 last night will feel there is significant cause for optimism ahead of the Premiership campaign which kicks off the following weekend.
Joey Barton made his first starting appearance for Rangers last night, his inclusion one of six changes Warburton made to the line-up from last Friday’s win away to East Stirlingshire.
The former England midfielder, taking up a central position in front of the back four, was the fulcrum of a home performance which was predictably and utterly dominant in terms of possession.
Barton’s eye for an incisive pass led to Rangers taking the lead from the penalty spot in the fifth minute as he lofted the ball into the feet of Barrie McKay on the left. Not for the last time on the evening, the winger caused Stranraer right-back Ross Barbour no end of agitation as he drove into the area.
Barbour’s clumsy trip on McKay left referee John Beaton with a simple decision to make as he pointed to the spot. Waghorn’s left-footed penalty was far from wholly convincing but although Stranraer goalkeeper Cameron Belford got a hand to the ball, he couldn’t keep it out.
Waghorn should have doubled the advantage four minutes later when he rose to meet Harry Forrester’s cross from the right but could only direct his header straight at Belford.
Rangers continued to probe relentlessly in search of gaps in the blanket defence being employed by Stranraer who had former Hearts striker Christian Nade operating in isolation up front.
Belford made a smart save to turn a McKay shot wide then, from the subsequent corner, pulled off a double stop to deny James Tavernier and Danny Wilson.
When Rangers did make it 2-0 in the 16th minute, it was as the consequence of the kind of unforced error the visitors simply couldn’t afford to make. Mark McGuigan’s attempt to find Belford with a passback from a deep position was woefully underhit and seized upon by Waghorn. The striker surged into the penalty area where his left-foot shot took a slight deflection off Barbour to leave Belford with no prospect of stopping it.
The opportunity of a rapid order hat-trick came Waghorn’s way in the 24th minute but this time he blazed wastefully over the top after the ball broke kindly to him from a McKay corner. Barbour’s torturous evening continued when he was booked for a cynical trip on McKay and it was no surprise when he failed to reappear for the second half as he and the injured Nade were replaced by Kyle Turner and Craig Malcolm.
But there was little the League 1 outfit could do to stem the persistent flow of pressure being exerted by a Rangers side in no mood to call off their hunt for more goals.
Number three duly arrived in the 53rd minute and was smartly converted by Kranjcar. While still short of optimum match fitness, the former Spurs and QPR playmaker produced some delightful touches throughout and delivered one of them when he nicked the ball off Waghorn’s toes and guided home a precise right-foot shot from the edge of the penalty area,
Warburton made a triple substitution midway through the second half which included England under-19 captain Jordan Rossiter making his debut as a replacement for Barton, who received loud acclaim from the home fans as he departed.
Former Liverpool midfielder Rossiter caught the eye with some neat touches, while fellow subs Kenny Miller and Joe Dodoo presented fresh problems in attack for Stranraer to contend with. Despite maintaining their monopoly of possession, Rangers were unable to add to their tally with Miller seeing one effort cleared off the line and then contriving to squirm a shot wide from close range.