Steven Gerrard’s side took full advantage of Celtic’s defeat at Livingston earlier in the afternoon as they swatted Hamilton Accies aside to move two points clear of the defending champions.
It’s the first time Rangers have been league leaders since their brief ascension to the summit in December last season. Gerrard’s squad appear capable of a more sustained tilt at the title this time around.
It was a day to forget for Hamilton manager Brian Rice whose side simply had no answer to the predatory Defoe, who was at the sharp end of some impressive attacking football from Rangers.
On a day when they looked to get the disappointment of Thursday night’s stoppage-time Europa League defeat at Young Boys out of their system, Rangers and their supporters were provided with the perfect pick-me-up even before kick-off by news of Celtic’s slip-up.
The renewed buoyancy among the home support was matched by the intensity of Gerrard’s players as they immediately forced Hamilton on to the back foot.
Defoe, replacing top scorer Alfredo Morelos in the starting line-up, was a constant threat to the visitors’ packed defence with his clever movement stretching them to create space for team-mates. Rangers’ first chance came after Defoe linked up with Greg Stewart to set up Scott Arfield whose shot was blocked by Brian Easton.
Hamilton goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams then saved a header from Goldson but was beaten in the seventh minute when Rangers’ early onslaught reaped its reward.
Stewart’s piercing through ball caught the Accies’ backline flat-footed and was seized upon by Defoe who clipped a delightful lob over the helpless Fon Williams. The ball nestled in the net via the inside of the keeper’s right-hand post to give Rangers the perfect start.
As they maintained the pressure, Fon Williams did well to parry a powerful shot from Sheyi Ojo and was later relieved to see a sweetly struck effort from Stewart fly narrowly wide.
Hamilton were either unwilling or unable to alter their game plan which had appeared to be one of damage limitation from the outset. The only surprise was that it took Rangers until the 34th minute before they finally doubled their lead.
Connor Goldson began the move himself as he surged forward and played the ball to James Tavernier wide on the right. The Rangers captain had been guilty of a couple of poor deliveries earlier in the match but this time his cross was perfectly timed and weighted to pick out Goldson’s run into the box. The big defender beat Fon Williams with a close-range diving header.
Hamilton were finally provoked into displaying a hint of attacking ambition and Ronan Hughes produced their first attempt at goal with a fine effort which only just cleared the top of Allan McGregor’s crossbar. Adrian Beck then saw a stinging drive bravely blocked by George Edmundson as Rangers had to do some significant defending for the first time.
They were soon back in the ascendancy, however, and finished the first half strongly. They had loud appeals for a penalty for handball against Markus Fjortoft rejected by referee Nick Walsh, then came close through Tavernier whose shot was blocked by Sam Stubbs.
Rangers resumed in similar vein after the break and the Accies goal found itself under almost permanent siege. Arfield forced Fon Williams into a decent save before Stewart narrowly failed to connect with the follow-up which was flashed across the face of the six-yard box.
Hamilton made a change on the hour mark, replacing Beck with Lewis Smith who has been one of their stand-out performers this season and whose absence from the starting line-up was something of a surprise.
But before Smith could make any impact, the visitors found themselves 3-0 down. Stubbs was booked for a late challenge on Defoe just outside the penalty area and Borna Barisic stepped up to brilliantly bend the free-kick over the defensive wall and into the top left-hand corner of Fon Williams’ goal.
There was no let-up in the tempo of Rangers’ play and their fourth goal came just two minutes later when Defoe wriggled his way into the penalty area on the right and squeezed a low shot across Fon Williams into the opposite corner of the net.
This was now an opportunity to claim a hat-trick which Defoe was unlikely to pass up and he duly completed it in the 71st minute. Hamilton were being run ragged and after Fon Williams managed to parry a shot from Stewart, it was Defoe who pounced to smash the ball high into the net from around eight yards out.
Morelos replaced Ojo for the closing stages to give Hamilton even more cause for concern but the Colombian was unable to get in on the scoring act, his best effort defied by a fine save from the valiant Fon Williams.