AGAINST the bleakest of landscapes for Rangers and their supporters in recent years, Lewis Macleod has often shone out as a solitary beacon of hope for a brighter future.
Scorers: Rangers - Macleod (86)
Amid the latest off-the-field turmoil currently gripping the Ibrox club, following Mike Ashley’s boardroom coup, it was the gifted young midfielder who rose to the occasion again to send them into the semi-finals of the League Cup for the first time in four seasons.
Macleod, the outstanding player on view in a less than gripping last eight tie, grabbed the only goal in the 86th minute to secure a victory Ally McCoist’s side just about merited. It was the second successive round of the tournament that Macleod has scored to see off Premiership opposition, having previously netted the winner against Inverness.
There were just over 13,000 inside Ibrox to witness his latest vital strike. Derek Llambias, acting as a consultant on Ashley’s behalf, took his seat in the directors’ box. The combination of general discontent among Rangers supporters and live terrestrial television coverage of the tie was always going to deliver a sparse attendance inside Ibrox. The top tiers of both the Copland and Broomloan Road stands were closed in anticipation of such apathy and there were thousands of empty seats in the other parts of the ground.
The lack of atmosphere was matched by the paucity of entertainment on offer as both teams struggled to find any fluency. It was a congested midfield battle for lengthy periods with creativity and invention at a premium.
St Johnstone were first to threaten, albeit in the loosest sense of the word, when on-loan Dundee United striker flashed a shot wide of Steve Simonsen’s left hand post from the edge of the penalty area in the eighth minute.
There was more genuine menace about the visitors’ next attack. Michael O’Halloran, preferred in the starting line-up to James McFadden who was dropped to the bench, sparked the danger with a good run and cross from the right.
It caused panic among the Rangers central defenders and Simon Lappin looked poised to have a free shot on goal from close range until full-back Richard Foster got across to make a terrific covering block.
Although Rangers had the edge in possession, they found it difficult to find any space in and around the Saints’ penalty area. There was a first sniff of a chance for Kenny Miller in the 14th minute but he failed to connect cleanly with an acrobatic scissors kick from Fraser Aird’s right wing cross.
It prompted a better spell of play from the home side who were denied by a smart piece of goalkeeping from Alan Mannus three minutes later. The Saints number one sprinted off his line to save Kris Boyd’s shot after the striker had been played in by Lewis Macleod’s precise reverse pass.
The Perth side suffered a blow shortly afterwards when Murray Davidson was hurt in an accidental clash with Darren McGregor on the edge of the Rangers penalty area. The midfielder required lengthy treatment before he was carried off on a stretcher and replaced by Gary McDonald.
The stalemate continued to produce little in the way of goalmouth action but St Johnstone missed their best opportunity of the first half four minutes before the interval. Lee Wallace lost possession with a loose pass which was intended for Macleod, allowing Lee Croft to break into space on the right.
The English midfielder’s cross picked out the unmarked Frazer Wright in the heart of the penalty area but the big defender wastefully directed his header over the crossbar. There was further aerial threat from Saints in first half stoppage time, Foster having to clear from under his own crossbar ahead of Graham.
Rangers attempted to inject greater urgency into their work at the start of the second half and Boyd came close to grabbing the opener when he latched onto Macleod’s cross from the left, only to see his shot deflected just wide off Brian Easton.
St Johnstone responded in kind and Simonsen had to get down low to his left to touch O’Halloran’s shot wide after the forward had got in behind Foster on the left. Simonsen bettered that save in the 50th minute, but it came at a cost as his head collided with his left hand post after he dived full length to divert Graham’s headed from a Lappin free-kick behind for a corner. After being tended to by medics for several minutes, Simonsen was led away on a stretcher. He was replaced by Lee Robinson, making the first appearance of his second spell at Ibrox.
The tie remained evenly poised and the sense grew that one goal may well be enough to win it. Boyd’s radar was just out once again when he headed wide from a Foster cross as Rangers tried to force the issue.
With just over quarter of an hour remaining, McCoist replaced Boyd with Jon Daly to less than universal acclaim from the home fans, but the substitute almost came up trumps immediately when his header from a Macleod free-kick struck Mannus’ right hand post.
A mistake by Lee McCulloch presented O’Halloran with a decent chance at the other end but he lacked composure as he blazed his shot off target.
It was Macleod who showed the necessary poise to settle the contest in the closing stages. One of Rangers’ best passing moves of the night culminated in Aird crossing from the left for Macleod to cutely glance a header beyond Mannus into the corner of the net for his seventh goal of the season.
Rangers: Simonsen (Robinson 54), Foster, McGregor, McCulloch, Wallace; Aird (Smith 89), Black, Law, Macleod; Miller, Boyd (Daly 74). Subs not used: Mohsni, Shiels, Templeton, Clark.
St Johnstone: Mannus, Mackay, Wright, Anderson, Easton; Croft (McFadden 90), Millar, Davidson (McDonald 23), Lappin (Caddis 75); O’Halloran, Graham. Subs not used: Banks, Morgan, Miller, Brown.