It remains to be seen just how authentic a title race develops in the closing months of the Premiership but Rangers couldn’t do any more than they are at present to create the conditions to bring about a genuine contest.
Graeme Murty’s side simply blew away an obliging St Johnstone in a three-goal first half in Perth to ensure that Celtic will require a win at home to Dundee this evening to restore their nine-point lead at the top of the table. The Ibrox men are asking questions of their city rivals. Moreover, they have ensured that when they host them in 11 days’ time in their next league outing – after Sunday’s Scottish Cup quarter-final at home to Falkirk – it will be the first truly meaningful derby between the pair since Rangers’ promotion two seasons ago.
Not since they stepped up to the highest level had they won five straight games until they did so in blistering fashion at McDiarmid Park last night. An 11th win in 15 league games, the statistic in part reflects the transformation that Murty has effected across four months in charge. Only in part. Equally impressive is the fact that his side have claimed nine wins and a draw from their past 11 matches.
Rangers attack with alacrity, in doing so producing craft to top this off with a genuine cutting edge. Josh Windass taking his tally to ten goals in a mere seven games with last night’s second is a measure of his team’s menace. As is the fact that their four goals in Perth took their haul to 19 goals in their past five games.
Their incisiveness allows them to make racking up victories seem a relatively straightforward business. Murty’s predecessors Pedro Caixinha and Mark Warburton made achieving that akin to solving the Riemann Hypothesis.
Murty’s immediate task in being given the managerial role for the rest of the season at Christmas time wasn’t toppling Celtic. It was overhauling Aberdeen as the champions’ main challengers. The squad he has assembled are firmly in position to do that after Murty reshaped the side during the transfer window, bringing energy and nous to the midfield with the addition of Jamie Murphy, Greg Docherty and Sean Goss. Derek McInnes’ men going into tonight’s trip to Motherwell six points adrift of the Ibrox side.
The sense that Rangers are firmly in a groove isn’t entirely restricted to what is happening on the pitch. Only a groin strain sustained by Declan John in the comprehensive 2-0 win over Hearts at the weekend prevented Murty sending out the same XI again at Perth. Andy Halliday deputised at left-back and he could have done so in slippers for all the problems that the home side caused.
Murty had reflected in the lead-up to last night’s encounter how Tommy Wright’s men had done a number on his team with their 3-1 win at Ibrox that snared them a first league success at the ground in 46 years. Then, Rangers were chasing a fifth straight win only for their frailties to blow up again.
A repeat wasn’t entirely ruled out after St Johnstone had posted their first home win since September with a convincing victory over Ross County that followed on from a hard-earned draw at Celtic Park. Yet, Wright’s men looked beaten from the moment their defensive vulnerabilities resulted in the concession of a penalty after only 12 minutes. A Goss ball over the top from the left was missed by Steven Anderson and dropped to Alfredo Morelos alone in the middle of the goal. As he ran wide, he was brought down by Alan Mannus. A spot-kick and yellow card ensued from referee Steven McLean, with James Tavernier drilling the penalty in with the conviction flowing through the Rangers ranks.
Evidence of this belief was delivered with the sublime move that brought the 25th-minute second. The speed of thought and movement cut the Perth backline apart as Morelos fed Docherty who exchanged passes with Daniel Candeias, before showing great vision to deliver a first-time pass into Windass, who swept in from eight yards.
Goss provided the third just before the interval, curling a dipping free-kick round the Saints wall and low inside Mannus’s right-hand post.
The keeper’s night to forget was compounded when he was beaten at his near post with a poked-in header from Morelos lurking at the upright, the ball having bounced up to him from a Tavernier cross.
The token resistance came in the form of a 62nd minute consolation, Jason Kerr taking full advantage of a free-header from a Liam Craig corner. Rangers’ inability to record a clean sheet was the only blemish on their night.