Establishing an early 2-0 advantage is no guarantee of success – as Rangers know to their cost.
It was only earlier this month that they let slip a lead of this margin at Pittodrie against Aberdeen. They were even quicker out of the blocks on this occasion. Two goals inside the opening eight minutes by Ryan Kent and Joe Aribo meant they were in control from early on. It helps when the opponents then suffer a lapse in discipline. Ryan Porteous’ straight red card on the hour mark for a rash lunge on Borna Barisic was another learning curve in the often-impulsive youngster’s development. It led to a short burst of chaos.
Figures people had never heard of were getting red cards. Tom Culshaw, the Rangers technical coach, was shown one and sent packing from the dugout. John Potter, Jack Ross’ assistant, was also invited to leave the technical area following his part in a scuffle that had broken out in response to a challenge by Porteous that could have led to serious injury.
Referee Nick Walsh resisted handing out more red cards and attention returned to the pitch, where items of rubbish thrown on by individuals in the east stand ringed the area where Barisic had been lying as he received treatment. There was even a bottle hurled on, evoking memories of last season when Celtic’s Scott Sinclair was almost hit by one here. The left-back was then the subject of jeers for the rest of the match. Crazily, several fans sitting in the main stand stood up to applaud Porteous as he disappeared down the tunnel. Rangers were three up by this time after Jermain Defoe scored the Ibrox side’s third nine minutes after half-time and following Hibs’ best spell of the game. All this and the visitors were without their suspended top scorer Alfredo Morelos.
These were not the circumstances in which Hibs defender Darren McGregor wanted to make a long-awaited comeback. The centre-half was sent on for Scott Allan to help the ten men try to limit the damage.
Hibs just did not get going. Ross had picked an attacking line-up but it was unable to function given Rangers’ continual pressing. They were already trailing by two goals having barely left their own half. It was the ultimate sobering experience for the Hibs fans on a night when many in the crowd had clearly had a few to celebrate clocking off from work for the festive period. Their team, it seemed, had done likewise.
Rangers, meanwhile, were rampant. Some had wondered if they might succumb to the pressure of knowing they had to keep on Celtic’s tail. But Steven Gerrard’s side kept their nerve to move to within two points of Celtic once more, with the same number of games played. The league leaders host Aberdeen this afternoon.
Hibs were the authors of their own downfall in the first instance at least. Ofir Marciano, the recently recalled goalkeeper, skewed a kickout only as far as Kent on the edge of the box and the winger swept the ball into the empty net. Only four minutes had elapsed.
Aribo continued his recent good form with a second goal. Handed a licence to roam by Gerrard, he pushed forward into the box and took a cutback from Ryan Jack in his stride before stroking a left-footed shot into the far corner of Marciano’s net for his sixth goal of an ever more impressive campaign.
Hibs were abject. They might have gone further behind only 22 minutes in. Some more nimble work from Rangers saw Kent play in Aribo, whose effort was saved by the legs of Marciano. It made up for his earlier mistake since it prevented things getting very ugly indeed for the hosts. What hope Hibs had lay in recalling Aberdeen’s recent comeback. Derek McInnes’ side had been similarly outplayed in the first 45 minutes at Pittodrie and yet had staged an unlikely second-half resurgence to claim a point. It was a point surely made by Ross at half-time.
His side had shown little evidence of being able to mount such a recovery in the opening 45 minutes. A free-kick by Stevie Mallan flew just over, an angled shot by Martin Boyle just wide. But that was about the extent of it.
Rangers could have again stretched their lead but James Tavernier headed straight at Marciano after an excellent Barisic cross. When the half-time whistle sounded, boos rang out from the home stands.
As expected, Ross sought to alter things at half-time and switched to 4-2-3-1. Striker Florian Kamberi was sacrificed along with Mallan, with Daryl Horgan and Vykintas Slivka sent on. It led to a short burst of promise, but this was abruptly stemmed by Defoe’s strike. It was a goal that summed up his quality and underlined what a luxury it is for Gerrard to be able to replace Morelos with such a fine finisher.
Defoe brought the ball down out of the sky with a nonchalant touch before taking it wide of Porteous then hitting a shot in off the inside of the post. The drama that followed did not impact on the evening other than to help clear Easter Road even more quickly as the home fans concluded it was not to be their team’s night.