How Rangers achieved Celtic Viaplay Cup finale, Aberdeen fine adversaries, Anthony Stewart red and VAR malfunction
Scotland’s national stadium possesses a special power of shaping narratives, summoning heroes and villains. Of acting as a decision-maker. Wins matter that bit more which means, in turn, losses cut much deeper. The noise around defeat is louder and can suffocate. The fallout lasts longer. It lingers. Gnawing away until it can be rectified.
Hampden Park is a place where suffering is required for success to be achieved. Rangers were made to work, work hard, sweat and shout for their place in the final. For 98 minutes of normal time which finished 1-1. Then 30 minutes of extra time where the crucial winner was secured. Aberdeen were sterling adversaries in a semi-final slobberknocker which acted as a wonderful throwback on a Hampden pitch which was as brown as it was green, feeling the after-effects of Celtic’s win over Kilmarnock, and VAR malfunctioning during extra-time.
Now for the 16th time, the Glasgow behemoths will meet in the final of the League Cup, Rangers 90 minutes away from their first success in this competition since a 2-1 extra-time triumph over their arch rivals in 2011. Since then, they’ve suffered semi-final pain against Aberdeen when Beale was part of Steven Gerrard’s backroom staff then final agony when the same coaching team witnessed their side better Celtic, miss a penalty, but ultimately lose. That bottom line Beale talked about not being achieved.
For a period, that League Cup – Viaplay Cup in its current guise – struggle appeared set to prolong. After a dominant opening from Rangers which saw Fashion Sakala go close, Aberdeen went in front having threatened with a less-than-subtle but effective approach of getting the ball forward and turning the opposition defence. Beale’s men, in possession, would see either John Lundstram or Ryan Jack drop into the back line with Borna Barisic and James Tavernier pushing high up the flanks with Sakala and Ryan Kent moving centrally. It meant when possession was lost, if Aberdeen broke fast, one pass was all that was needed, especially with the pace of Miovski leading the line, for some a surprise starter despite his 12 goals this season.
In the build-up to the game, Dons boss Jim Goodwin had spoken of Miovski’s recent goal drought, none since the return from the World Cup break. The Dons boss said: “He's had a brilliant week's training. He's been on fire in some of the games we've had so hopefully he will take a bit of confidence from that and get back to the goals on Sunday which would be lovely.”
The North Macedonian sent a strong warning early on with a hugely impressive strike past Allan McGregor despite being offside. He demonstrated his range of finishing later. Another long ball, more indecision from the Rangers defence with Miovski standing offside. Ben Davies looked to McGregor, neither took control as Matty Kennedy ran through then crossed for his team-mate who was now active and he clipped it past the keeper.
Goodwin had faced criticism from an Aberdeen support, who have not universally taken to him, after league defeats to Celtic and Rangers in the space of three December days. “We're not satisfied with just getting to this stage,” was the message ahead of the game. “We have tried to focus a lot on how we will cause Rangers problems and not too much on trying to worry about what Rangers can do to us.”
Morelos and Stewart
His game plan was working, and working well, before and after the goal. Rangers had an Alfredo Morelos header scrambled away by Kelle Roos as the best to show for efforts in the first half after the early Sakala chance. The Colombian appealed that it had crossed the line but goal-line technology was in use, Nick Walsh pointing to his wrist.
The striker featured as part of one of the big talking points coming into the match. Aberdeen captain Anthony Stewart had declared Antonio Colak as the better of the two strikers. The expectation would be that Morelos would make him regret such comments. The type of character who would rediscover that menace which has made him one of Scottish football's most difficult opponents. But there is something just off with him right now and other than a coming together between the pair in the 17th minute there was little of interest in the battle between the two. In fact, just prior to the hour mark one Rangers fan's comments summed up his contributions. “Come on Morelos, get in the game!" was the shout. He did just that, for a moment. Collecting the ball out left he exchanged passes with Kent before rolling the ball to Jack, who saw his shot deflected past Roos by Liam Scales.
Then Stewart made sure his on-field performance will be remembered just as infamously as his pre-game opinions, becoming villain of the piece. The centre-back steamed into Sakala with the ferocity of a medieval jouster, leaving the Zambian in a heap at the side of the pitch. As needless as it was rash.
Roofe the hero
Heavy legged, down to ten men and missing two influential stars in Leighton Clarkson and Duk, the odds were stacked against Aberdeen. With one former Don scoring, it was left for another to set up the winner. Scott Wright, stepping off the bench, breezed down the left and centred for fellow sub Kemar Roofe to become the hero.
Ultimately, Rangers achieved their bottom line, even if for vast periods of a captivating encounter they were matched by Aberdeen. Celtic are next, on Sunday, February 26, where that bottom line grows exponentially.
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