Rangers ensured they will travel to Celtic Park as Premiership leaders when the title race resumes after the international break as they claimed a merited, if occasionally laboured, victory over Ross County.
James Tavernier’s eighth goal in as many games from a 17th minute penalty put Steven Gerrard’s side in control but they had to wait until the 88th minute before substitute Brandon Barker, on his 24th birthday, put the contest to bed against their grimly determined visitors.
A point clear of champions Celtic, having played a game more, Rangers will approach the first Old Firm showdown of the campaign on 17 October with momentum and confidence.
This was an afternoon, however, which presented them with what has become a familiar scenario on domestic business at Ibrox as their opponents set out with an ultra-defensive shape designed to frustrate and subdue them.
To that end, Tavernier’s latest emphatic conversion from 12 yards out provided Rangers with relatively early relief and allowed them the freedom to try and impose their possession-based style of play on proceedings.
Before they took the lead, however, there had been an early reminder that Ross County’s strategy was not completely without ambition. Regan Charles-Cook surged forward from his role on the right of a five-man defence and beat Borna Barisic before flashing over a low cross which narrowly eluded Michael Gardyne in the six yard box.
Rangers, with four changes to the starting line-up from their Europa League success against Galatasaray last Thursday night, took time to find their rhythm. Their first threat came from a set piece, after Ryan Kent had been brought down by Coll Donaldson, and Barisic saw his free-kick deflected over off the defensive wall.
Kent’s intricate footwork then managed to stretch the County defence, the winger creating space to deliver a cross from the left which Alfredo Morelos misjudged as he got under the ball.
The manner in which Rangers made the breakthrough would have been a huge source of frustration for County manager Stuart Kettlewell, watching from the stand as he started a three-match touchline ban.
Donaldson’s indiscipline undermined County’s gameplan as Morelos went down under the defender’s challenge as they contested a through ball from Tavernier. It was a simple decision for referee Greg Aitken and Tavernier made the most of it, smashing the ball straight down the middle as County goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw dived to his left.
Jordan Jones, one of those brought back into the starting line-up, was looking to build on his eye-catching display against Motherwell seven days earlier. The Northern Ireland winger set up a decent chance for Morelos with a good run and precise cross but the striker’s header lacked power and was easily held by Laidlaw.
Callum Morris picked up the first booking of the day for a heavy challenge on Kent and Barisic came close with the resulting free-kick, his effort deflected narrowly over.
Morelos saw a shot on the turn well held by Laidlaw before Connor Goldson sent an inviting headed chance just over from a Barisic corner as Rangers looked for the consolidation of a second goal.
A shot from Kent was deflected narrowly wide of Laidlaw’s right-hand post after a patient and imaginatively constructed move from Rangers four minutes before the break as they continued to lack a cutting edge to complement their neat football.
Donaldson went some way to compensating for his penalty concession when he made a tremendous block on the edge of the six-yard box to prevent Morelos from getting on the end of a Tavernier cross
Rangers had appeals for another spot-kick rejected when Kent was tripped by Josh Reid, ref Aitken rightly ruling the offence took place just outside the penalty area.
Laidlaw made a fine reaction save to touch over Leon Balogun’s shot from a Kent corner, then Morelos wastefully lofted an effort over from the corner of the six-yard box after he had been played in by Glen Kamara.
Rangers remained at risk of being punished for their profligacy and had a lucky escape in the 64th minute when Kent was robbed by Ross Draper to spark a rare County attack. Draper linked up with Ross Stewart to force their way into the Rangers penalty area but the big striker lacked composure at the crucial moment, allowing Jon McLaughlin to gather the ball.
County captain Callum Morris came perilously close to putting his team out of contention when a mix-up with Laidlaw saw him head a Tavernier through ball inches wide of the goalkeeper’s left-hand post.
But there was more than a hint of nerves in some of Rangers’ work as the match ticked into the latter stages and Donaldson missed a glorious chance to level for the visitors when he sent a free header over from close range after being picked out by Reid’s free-kick.
Rangers heeded the warning and settled matters with two minutes of regulation time remaining when two of Gerrard’s substitutes combined to great effect. Ianis Hagi’s lofted ball over the top of the County defence allowed Barker to beat the offside trap. The winger had the option of a pass to Morelos but decided to cut inside from the right, wrong-footing two defenders before drilling a low shot through Laidlaw’s legs.
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