Giovanni van Bronckhorst's Rangers gamble at Motherwell pays off - but there is some collateral damage
It certainly didn’t look that way when the reigning Scottish champions were reduced to 10 men after just 28 minutes at Fir Park, defender Leon Balogun shown a straight red card which means he will be suspended for next Sunday’s Old Firm game at Celtic Park.
Yet if there was any element of risk in van Bronckhorst’s decision to make eight changes to his starting line-up with the first leg of the Europa League semi-final against RB Leipzig in Germany on Thursday very much in mind, the gamble paid off as his players dug deep to claim all three points with an impressive second half display.
Scott Wright, one of the fringe men drafted into the starting line-up, restored their lead with a stylish finish before James Tavernier wrapped up victory from the penalty spot. It was the Rangers captain’s 80th goal for the Ibrox club, his 40th successful conversion from 12 yards.
It reduced Celtic’s lead over Rangers at the top of the Premiership to three points ahead of Sunday’s trip to Ross County for Ange Postecoglou’s men.
Van Bronckhorst has urged his squad to step up and prove themselves amid the adversity which this week saw Kemar Roofe and Aaron Ramsey added to an injury list which already deprives him of the services of Alfredo Morelos and Ianis Hagi.
This was an encouraging response for the Dutch coach, although he will hope to avoid any further self-inflicted wounds such as the one caused by Balogun.
While he protested his innocence when referee Nick Walsh reached for his red card, the Nigerian international’s case did not bear close scrutiny.
His late challenge on Dean Cornelius appeared reckless and certainly came into the category of potentially endangering the safety of an opponent.
Balogun’s exit came just as Rangers had looked to be exerting a firm degree of control on the contest.
After a frantic start, they had settled into a dominant pattern and should have taken the lead in the 11th minute when Fashion Sakala broke free down the left and fed the ball to Amad Diallo inside the penalty area.
The on-loan Manchester United forward, making only his fourth starting appearance for Rangers and his first since mid-February, tried to be too precise with his shot which was blocked by Callum Slattery at the expense of a corner.
But it took Rangers just another three minutes to make the breakthrough. A short corner routine on the left between Tavernier and Diallo saw the Rangers captain float the ball to the far post where it was nodded back into the danger zone by Connor Goldson.
Motherwell goalkeeper Kelly could only divert the ball towards his own goal and while Wright claimed the credit, there was some confusion over who got the final touch as the Rangers player wrestled with both Kelly and Slattery to bundle the ball home.
Although Allan McGregor had to make a smart save to keep out a Slattery shot, Rangers still looked the likelier side to score again at this stage and Tavernier saw a fizzing drive graze the outside of Kelly’s right hand post.
But Balogun’s dismissal dramatically altered the momentum of proceedings. Van Bronckhorst responded by replacing Diallo with Calvin Bassey who moved into central defence for the reshuffled 10 men.
Rangers felt the score should have been evened up on that front when Juahni Ojala clattered Wright but despite the incensed reaction from the visitors, the referee ruled that a booking was sufficient.
With Rangers still trying to recover their composure, Motherwell equalised 10 minutes before half-time.
Glen Kamara lost possession in a dangerous position, opting to try and dribble his way out of trouble rather than hoof the ball to safety, and the home side took advantage. They worked the ball to Jake Carroll on the left and his inviting cross found Tierney whose precise header gave McGregor no chance.
Motherwell looked to be in prime position to seize the initiative after the break but instead it was Rangers who resumed with far greater purpose.
They regained the lead less than two minutes after the restart which owed much to the desire of Sakala as he shrugged off a couple of challenges as he made a darting run infield from the left.
With the Motherwell defence caught flat-footed, he slipped a pass to Wright who calmly took a touch before guiding a fine low finish beyond Kelly from the edge of the penalty area.
There was no sense of Rangers being short-handed as they continued to cause Motherwell problems with their movement and sharpness in possession.
The game was up for the hosts in the 62nd minute when another driving run from Sakala was halted clumsily and, as far as Walsh was concerned, illegally by Bevis Mugabi.
Tavernier stepped forward to send Kelly the wrong way with the penalty as he celebrated his 15th goal of the season in front of the jubilant travelling fans.
It could have been even more convincing for Rangers with Sakala denied the goal his efforts deserved when he was unable to beat Kelly after racing clear once more.
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