Decline of Rangers continues: Heat turned up, fans' ire, 'you're finished' shout, Celtic gap widening, unfortunate Livingston
Last weekend against Motherwell, Rangers won 2-1 but the performance was underwhelming, and in midweek against Championship Dundee, they were booed off the pitch despite winning 1-0 and making the semi-finals of the Premier Sports Cup, such was the standard of their display. Against the Lions, they plumbed new depths, drawing 1-1 and falling four points behind Celtic in the title race. There were boos again, lots of them, and whistles as their angry fans left them in no doubt that this isn’t good enough. The heat has been turned up another notch on manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst.
A fourth-minute goal from Joel Nouble gave Livingston the lead and they were never in serious danger until 77 minutes, when VAR intervened and Livi’s Morgan Boyes was sent off. David Martindale’s had men spent most of the second half penned into their own half but they were organised and resolute. With a man less, though, and five Rangers forwards on the pitch as they desperately searched for a goal, the pressure increased tremendously and they cracked late on when an unmarked John Lundstram volleyed home.
"You’re finished, Gio” shouted one disgruntled fan in the main stand behind the press box as the clock struck 90 minutes, just seconds before the equaliser. Certainly patience is beginning to wear very thin with the Rangers supporters. The 7-1 Champions League defeat by Liverpool inflicted wounds that are far from healing. The team’s confidence is low, and the supporters’ confidence in them even lower. While the aforementioned punter’s comment is probably hyperbole at this stage, Van Bronckhorst looked the most concerned has has been since taking over the reins some ten months ago when speaking to the media afterwards. This display was one of the worst on his watch.
There is some irony, therefore, that Rangers could have won this match in seven minutes of stoppage time with three good chances, the best falling to Lundstram, who somehow headed over the bar from six yards out. Defeat would have been utterly cruel on Livingston, however, who were so close to their first-ever win at Ibrox. Martindale was proud yet a little disappointed not to head back along the M8 with the full loot. Their first-half performance, in particular, was excellent and very nearly scored a second goal on 18 minutes when Jack Fitzwater’s volley fizzed a centimetre past the post.
It was evident from early on in this match that Rangers were going to toil. Almost every attack was funnelled down the left flank and the woes of their chief winger Ryan Kent continued. He could not create the openings Rangers craved, although it must be pointed out that he never, ever hid, and it was he who picked out Lundstram for the equaliser. Left-back Borna Barisic was also relied upon too much to try and pierce the visitors and the decision to station Scott Arfield as an inverted winger and ask Tavernier to overlap did not work correctly. There is a galling lack of creativity in midfield, nobody capable of splitting a defence from central areas. Van Bronckhorst doubled down with his wide-play ploy in the second half by bringing on Rabbi Matondo but he was ineffective before being taken off with a back problem.
There is also a fragility about this Rangers team that opponents can now sense. For Livingston’s goal, Christian Montano did well down the left to pick out Nouble but the lack of challenges on the Colombian was unacceptable and Nouble, not the fastest mover, was allowed so much time to turn unmarked and fire past Allan McGregor. Tavernier admitted post-match that he should have shut down Montano. The Lions played with one up front and a more offensive team will get further change out of Rangers right now. The absence of Connor Goldson is clearly affecting them, given his mainstay status for the entire time he’s been at the club. Leon King and Ben Davies, Rangers’ centre-halves, looked uncomfortable against the awkward yet hugely effective Nouble, whose physicality is such a weapon for Rangers.
The home crowd became ammunition for Livingston, too. Ibrox became very fractious very early. The time-wasting of visiting goalkeeper Shamal George infuriated them as much as their side’s unproductive build-up play. Top-scorer Antonio Colak was well marshalled by Fitzwater and Ayo Obileye. Van Bronckhorst summoned Alfredo Morelos from the bench to augment his attack on 66 minutes but the Colombian got little joy, although it was he who was fouled by Boyes – himself a sub – that led to the red card. Referee David Munro originally booked the Welshman but on the advice of Alan Mulvanny in the VAR room, he looked at the incident on the screen and upgraded it to a dismissal. Boyes’ tackle looked high and reckless and there were no complaints from his manager, who has watched the incident back and believes the officials made the right call.
It resulted in a frenzied end to proceedings. Rangers got their goal, a really clean strike by Lundstram, but it wasn’t enough to spare them the ire of their fans. These are dangerous times for Van Bronckhorst and this Rangers team. Napoli on Wednesday, Aberdeen back here on Saturday. Pitfalls everywhere, and very little margin for error. Rangers and their manager need to make sure they arrest this slump quickly.