Speculation surrounding Jelavic’s future predictably intensified with his omission from Ally McCoist’s side to face Motherwell, but the Rangers manager insisted it was a groin strain rather than any imminent move to the English Premier League which sidelined the Croatian international.
On a day when McCoist and his men were under considerable pressure to respond to being toppled from the SPL summit at Celtic Park last Wednesday night, it was Jelavic’s replacement David Healy who sent them on their way to their most convincing victory since the early stages of the campaign.
Although Motherwell started 2012 with one of their poorest performances under Stuart McCall’s management, this was a vibrant and positive response from Rangers to their recent disappointments.
Healy’s inclusion in the starting line-up for the first time since Rangers’ League Cup exit at Falkirk in September may not have been greeted with universal enthusiasm from the home support who would view Jelavic’s absence with considerable alarm.
But the Northern Ireland international striker was prominent in most of Rangers’ threatening work in a first half they dominated without ever reaching any great heights. Healy was presented with the first chance of the contest in only the fifth minute, Sone Aluko displaying good footwork and lively pace down the right to find him at the near post where his shot was turned behind by Motherwell goalkeeper Darren Randolph. From the corner, which Aluko whipped over from the right, Dorin Goian missed a highly presentable opportunity to put his team in front when he steered a free header wide of the target.
Rangers’ attack looked even more makeshift when they were forced into a ninth-minute change. Kyle Lafferty pulled up sharply as he chased a long through ball from Sasa Papac, the lanky forward appearing to damage a hamstring. He was led away on a stretcher in considerable distress as John Fleck replaced him.
Lee Wallace’s emergence as a valuable attacking option for Rangers in a wide left position was illustrated on several occasions and he surged to the byeline to create their next opening, Healy unable to get to the low cutback ahead of Randolph. When Wallace found space in a similar position moments later, it required an alert intervention from Motherwell captain Stephen Craigan to deny his former international team-mate Healy a clear sight of goal.
Motherwell were struggling to make any impact at the other end of the pitch, the first remote hint of danger for Allan McGregor’s goal coming in the 33rd minute when Keith Lasley directed a cross-cum-shot from the left narrowly off target.
Healy continued to look the most likely source of a breakthrough and he should have done better when he met a Papac cross with a downward header which bounced up over Randolph’s crossbar.
But he redeemed himself with the 35th-minute goal which provided a reminder of the instinctive penalty box finishing which earned him such a glowing reputation in his country’s colours. Maurice Edu wriggled free on the right to deliver a good cross to the near post. Healy gathered the ball and held off Tim Clancy’s challenge before sliding a low right foot shot across Randolph into the far corner of the net from close range.
McCall responded to the paucity of his team’s first-half display by making a double substitution, attempting to bring greater width and flair with the introduction of Chris Humphrey and Omar Daley for the lacklustre duo of Stephen Hughes and Jamie Murphy.
Rangers remained firmly in the ascendancy, however, and Randolph made a fine save to prevent Wallace from doubling the home team’s lead two minutes after the restart. Aluko’s deep cross from the right found Wallace at the far post and his close range shot was parried by the goalkeeper.
The pressure on the visitors’ goal intensified and Rangers secured the second goal they merited in the 55th minute. It was a smartly constructed and well taken goal, one which Aluko will remember fondly. Fleck, who caught the eye with some intelligent play, started the move with a slick exchange of passes with Steven Davis before finding Healy on the right of the penalty area. The striker fed the ball inside to Aluko who took it onto his left foot before dispatching a firm shot low beyond Randolph’s left hand from the edge of the 18-yard box.
The only mild disappointment McCoist might have felt was that his team could only add one more goal to their tally before full-time. It came in the 73rd minute, Aluko once more finding room on the right to drift a cross to the far post. Wallace met it and drove the ball towards goal from a tight angle, Motherwell captain Stephen Craigan’s attempted clearance merely diverting it into his own net.