Almost certainly Celtic will get the points needed for the flag and this match at Fir Park will fade in its significance but not for Scott Arfield it won’t. Generally regarded as one of Steven Gerrard’s better investments, the midfielder bagged the first hat-trick of his career.
The goals were a reward for the urgent support he offered to Rangers’ forward forays and another telling contribution came from Jermain Defoe, a pest throughout with his clever movement.
Perhaps the big Ibrox support at the game won’t appreciate Defoe being described as evergreen but that is what he is. The veteran striker didn’t score yesterday but that was as much down to his unselfishness as anything else.
Motherwell had high hopes for this game. As well as going for their sixth home win in succession, something not achieved since Willie Pettigrew and Bobby Graham were banging in the goals in 1975-6, they wanted to avenge the 7-1 thrashing dished out by Rangers the last time the sides met. But they contributed to their own downfall here.
Last season Motherwell battled their way - and that’s the word - to two cup finals but gained few admirers. This season they’ve put less emphasis on muscle and been far easier on the eye but have failed to make the top six. It was their attempts to play out from the back which were their undoing yesterday.
The opening minutes were a mish-mash of sclaffs and passes both overhit and underhit, a sliced clearance from Connor Goldson being typical. Unfortunately one of the match’s brightest young homegrown talents, Jake Hastie, wasn’t immune from the uninspiring endeavours, shooting hopelessly high over the bar in the home side’s first attack.
It was stodgy stuff, Motherwell having settled slightly better. That is, they achieved two corners while Rangers as an attacking force had been non-existent but then Defoe, lurking as always on the offside line, sniffed out a chance after being sprung by Daniel Candeias. The hitman’s pass to Arfield looked to have been blocked by Tom Aldred but the defender seemed to get his legs in a fankle and merely helped the ball on its way and Arfield crashed his shot high past Mark Gillespie.
Motherwell responded through Hastie galloping up the left and crossing low to the far post where James Tavernier was just able to get ahead of Gboly SAriyibi. The quality of the play was marginally better now, with Defoe smartly contriving another opportunity for himself.
Defoe was starting again because of Alfredo Morelos’ ban, Ryan Kent being similarly unavailable following last week’s incendiary Old Firm clash while Steve Gerrard’s punishment for his comments to the referee was being made to watch from the Fir Park stand.
But remember when Rangers, still with designs on the title, unveiled Defoe as their marquee signing? It would be unfair to say he’s been less marquee and more of a standard A-shaped tent from camping specialists Black’s of Greenock but the goals haven’t come with his appearances so sporadic.
He was playing and he was prominent yesterday but then came the almost predictable stoppage for an object thrown from the crowd.
Match observers are having to keep an eagle eye on what happens off the pitch as well as on it, with fans seemingly intent on returning Scottish football to its rumbustious 1970s incarnation. At Celtic Park last Sunday and again in Paisley on Wednesday, flashbombs were thrown. At Tynecastle yesterday it was a coconut. None but the nutters wanted Fir Park to top that for weirdness or anything else. This time the missile was a lighter, hurled from the East Stand housing home supporters and retrieved by Tavernier, after which a 20-strong police detatchment marched into position as a deterrent.
Rangers took control of the game with their second goal and, even more than with the first, Motherwell will feel they shot themselves in the foot. Rather than hoof the ball clear Charles Dunne out wide on the left elected to pass to David Tunrbull, immediately putting his team-mate in trouble. Candaeis pounced and Ryan Jack fed Arfield whose finish was clipped and assured.
The game had long since lost its feckless quality and resumed after the break with end-to-end forays. If Motherwell were going to get back into it the left flank looked like their most promising route and Aribiyi repeatedly tested Tavernier, ably backed by Hamilton whose neat feet caught the eye. On the other flank Hastie spied an opening but shot tamely straight at Allan McGregor, making his first save of the match.
But Rangers looked just as likely to extend their lead with Defoe a livewire presence in light blue at last. Then on the hour mark, yet again, Motherwell had possession only to surrender it, Defoe robbing Turnbull 20 yards out. The striker drove into the box and could have shot himself but unselfishly squared to Arfield for the latter’s treble.
From looking like Motherwell’s best options for a comeback, Turnbull then seemed to be cowed by his error while Ariyibi was substituted. It wasn’t their day but it was Arfield’s and at the final whistle he held the match ball above his head to milk the acclaim of the away end.