Inverness CT 1 Bayne (3)
Rangers 1 Prso (51)
Referee: C Thomson. Attendance: 6,543
HAVING only returned to the top of the tree the previous week, Rangers’ tenure at the summit of the SPL proved short-lived as the Ibrox club dropped two points yesterday against a busy Inverness Caledonian Thistle outfit. Although they deserved a draw in the end, there was a weariness about this performance which suggested Rangers, who were overly reliant on long balls, are paying a price for the lack of depth in an injury-ravaged squad.
While there was also, in all likelihood, a reaction to undertaking a demanding midweek trip to Holland on UEFA Cup business, Rangers were clearly a long way short of their best. Alex McLeish’s men did get better the longer the game lasted and Dado Prso secured a second-half equaliser as well as setting up a late opening for Nacho Novo.
When the Spaniard failed to convert the chance, Rangers dropped back into second place behind Celtic, who were given a fright by Hibs the day before. The suspicion that the gap between the rest and the Old Firm is less pronounced than in previous seasons was confirmed by the fact this was the first time in Caley Thistle’s history they’ve taken something from a game against Rangers.
If Caley Thistle were dreaming of glory when Graham Bayne scored from close range in the third minute of what was Craig Brewster’s first home game in charge of the side, they didn’t buckle when Rangers came back at them.
Since not even the presence of championship challengers could persuade a five-figure crowd to fill the Pittodrie stands, two of which remained unused, Caley Thistle must now keep their fingers crossed that a five-man SPL board will give the green light tomorrow for the club to play the second half of the season at their own ground in Inverness. A mere 6,543 paid to watch this game when Caley must have hoped 10,000 or more would have turned out.
If they could only maintain the form which saw them take the lead after only three minutes of this match then Inverness are bound to be hopeful of attracting a larger following in the second half of the season as well as remaining in the top flight. Irrespective of the team’s form, of course, not needing to make a five-hour round trip to watch home games is bound to have an impact on gates.
With the Rangers defence slow to switch on after the first whistle blew, Juanjo made a break down the right flank before locating Richard Hart whose cross was nudged over the line by Bayne. While it looked as if the visitors were trying to push forward and catch Inverness in an offside position, the ploy seriously backfired.
The obligation to pay Everton another instalment of 500,000 on the sum due for Michael Ball transfer’s ensured that the left-back started this game on the bench with Stevie Smith, 19, making his first start.
Although illness and injury have gnawed away at Alex McLeish’s resources in recent weeks - Peter Lovenkrands was the latest absentee - the Glasgow side were still able to field a pretty strong starting XI and, in the circumstances, were strangely subdued during the opening 45 minutes.
True, Fernando Ricksen’s ball over the top gave Prso a chance to shoot on target when he might have been better off squaring a pass to Nacho Novo. Otherwise, though, there wasn’t much sign of creativity in Rangers’ midfield where Stephen Hughes had earned a recall.
There was more troubling news for the Ibrox club when Jean-Alain Boumsong was hurt after a clash with Bayne. Although the defender did his best to run off the injury, the Frenchman eventually left the field in the 31st minute. Alex Rae subsequently came off the bench into a midfield berth with Robert Malcolm dropping back into central defence alongside Marvin Andrews.
McLeish decided to replace a midfielder, Hamed Namouchi, with a teenage striker, Bob Davidson, and take the game to the opposition after the break.
The switch to 4-3-3 produced an immediate dividend as Prso equalised in the 51st minute. A fine pass from Hughes after Rae began the move sent the Croatian striker surging through in the old inside-right position. From a tight angle, the forward was able to drive the ball between goalkeeper Mark Brown and the near post with a fine shot.
There was a far more positive dimension to Rangers’ play after the interval as they dispatched the ball forward in a direct manner and placed Inverness under sustained pressure for the first time. Since Novo had taken up a position on the left flank, there was also more space to play in for the three central midfielders.
Dominant in the match for the first time, Rae’s cross was flicked on by Ricksen in the 63rd minute and Prso might have put Rangers in front if he hadn’t got his boot stuck underneath a 12-yard shot which flew over the bar.
Inverness, mark you, remained threatening on the break and could have regained the lead three minutes later after Juanjo delivered the pass which gave Liam Keogh a clear sight of goal. His low shot was well enough struck but Klos pulled off the kind of influential block which makes him the most valuable goalkeeper in the league.
Rangers should have acquired all three points after Prso played in Novo in the 89th minute. With only Brown to beat, however, the Spaniard’s shot got stuck beneath the goalkeeper’s legs.
Inverness CT: Brown, Tokely, Dods, Munro, Golabek, Hart (Wilson 81), Keogh, Duncan, McBain (Hastings 64), Bayne, Juanjo (Prunty 90). Subs not used: Fraser, McCaffrey, Proctor, Fox.
Rangers: Klos, Khizanishvili, Boumsong (Alex Rae 31), Andrews, Steven Smith, Hughes, Ricksen, Malcolm, Namouchi (Davidson 45), Novo, Prso. Subs not used: Graeme Smith, Mladenovic, Ball, Hutton, Fetai.