Differences were meant to abound in this Covid-19 spectatorless start to the Premiership. And they certainly did as serenity reigned on and off the pitch for Rangers at Pittodrie yesterday. There was no baying crowd to quell and their meek hosts failed to bare their teeth either as Steven Gerrard’s men overcame the Dons with a commanding first-half display and comfortable second 45.
If it felt sometimes that a blood and thunder fixture had been rendered bloodless by the circumstances – save for the straight red shown to Andrew Considine on 86 minutes – that would have been no concern to the Ibrox manager. Not at a ground where he has endured bloodletting in having only won once in four previous attempts. Not when there was such onus on his team to take the title challenge to ten-in-a-row-chasing Celtic from the off.
Rangers did precisely everything required of them with a display – capped by Ryan Kent’s 21st-minute winner – that Gerrard was moved to consider a declaration of intent. As much as for safely seeking out the victory when Aberdeen found a rhythm late on. An utterly assured debut from centre-back Leon Balagoun, the 32-year-old Nigerian international signed from Wigan a week ago was instrumental in that.
“It’s a marker for us because all eyes were on us today in the first game,” Gerrard said. “When the fixtures came out, everyone was saying: ‘Oh, it’s Aberdeen away, will they drop points? There were questions on us today so we’ll go away pleased at picking up three points and getting a clean sheet.
“But no-one will get carried away. Aberdeen ran us all the way to the end and we’ll dust ourselves down for Europe [and Thursday’s tie in Leverkusen]. But we have to build on this now.”
There was a fluency and sharpness about the Ibrox side in the opening stages that contrasted with their utterly rudderless opponents. The front three of Alfredo Morelos, Ianis Hagi and Kent dropped back to create an overload that left the home team looking all over the place.
That was Aberdeen’s downfall in the decisive stretch of play. A sweeping move, it began at right-back with James Tavernier, who clipped the ball deftly inside to the feet of Morelos. In turn the Colombian smartly released the on-rusing Kent, who was nerveless in setting himself and stroking the ball into the right-hand corner of Joe Lewis’s net. Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes refused to blame his centre-back pairing but their decision making helped Kent have acres of room. Scott McKenna anticipated Tavernier knocking the ball up the line so vacated his position, while Ash Taylor had pushed up too slowly and was caught out by the Rangers winger.
McInnes deployed four second-half substitutes to good effect, with new Leeds United loan striker Ryan Edmondson and winger Niall McGinn giving the home team the guile and phsyicality they had been lacking in those areas. The physicality that resulted in red for Considine was wince-injucing but not malicious, meanwhile. A poor touch from Scott Arfield allowed the ball to break from him and the Aberdeen defender sought to pounce. Unfortunately for Considine when he did, he was out of control, his foot off the ground with studs showing when he clattered Arfield straight-legged. Only the four counts for referee Bobby Madden to dismiss him then.
Rangers debutant Balogun – described as “outstanding” by Gerrard, who revealed the defender was clapped into the dressing-room by his new team-mates – believed that Madden was derelict in not acting when he bashed his head on the upright after a wrestle with McKenna at a corner early in the second half.
“It was McKenna who pushed me into the goal post,” said the player. “I wanted to get up but I couldn’t. It wasn’t quite lights out but a little bit tough for me. Obviously I carried on playing and it wasn’t too bad. Maybe I’ll get some dizziness and a headache but I have tablets for that so it’s okay. Was I unhappy with the challenge from McKenna? Obviously because it shouldn’t happen. But then again I didn’t die so it’s okay. It’s part of the game so I think about it like a message: ‘welcome to Scottish football’.”
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