Battered by Liverpool midweek in the Champions League and left five points behind Celtic after the defending champions walloped Hibs 24 hours ago, the heat was on Rangers and their manager, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, to get a win and turn down the temperature. In that regard, Rangers just about managed to do so, clinging on to a 2-1 win at Fir Park that will not live long in the memory bank.
A fine individual effort from Malik Tillman that was completely out of place in this largely wretched game of football and an ugly header from John Lundstram that definitely belonged here secured the points for the visitors, who were then pegged back when Stuart McKinstry scored his own slightly freaky goal when a relatively straightforward free-kick deceived Rangers goalkeeper Allan McGregor.
For large periods, though, Rangers struggled to make an impression on the game. They clearly missed Connor Goldson in central defence for his qualities and leadership. Leon King took his place alongside Ben Davies but Motherwell did not test them out until late into the match, by which point there was not enough time to salvage a point. It was in the final third that Rangers’ lack of quality was so galling, with wingers Ryan Kent and Rabbi Matondo offering little and Antonio Colak having a very poor time of things as the central striker. No control was exerted in midfield either.
Calling the first half a slow burner would be a generous assessment. Both teams were sloppy with their passing and played without tempo. Rangers had a couple of chances, with Kent’s low effort being smothered by Motherwell keeper Liam Kelly and Matondo firing over the bar from a promising position. But too often the final ball was lacking, or the intensity was not there. On more than one occasion, McGregor bellowed at those in front of him, demanding more urgency. It didn’t come. Long diagonal after long diagonal, with only a few of them finding their target.
Motherwell are an organised bunch under Steven Hammell and the back-four of Paul McGinn, Sondre Solholm, Rickie Lamie and Matt Penney kept their shape and discipline well in the first half. McGinn has often been a tough full-back for Kent to get the better of and he policed him diligently, while Matondo on the opposite flank did not beat his man often enough. The interval was greeted with some disgruntlement from the Rangers fans housed in the away end. Rangers had not run at Motherwell with enough purpose and had wasted possession. A spark was needed. The opening 45 was best summed up by Motherwell midfielder Sean Goss being booked for time-wasting.
Mercifully, the beginning of the second half brought about a change of pace to this game. Rangers woke up, no doubt having the words of Van Bronckhorst ringing in their ears. Colak headed a very presentable chance yards wide after Borna Barisic, one of the better players on the pitch, stood up a fine cross on 49 minutes, before at the other end Kevin van Veen broke free, only for McGregor to get down smartly and stop his shot two minutes later.
Rangers’ flair players were now showing some sort of willingness to be direct and the opening goal, from Tillman, came about from such an approach on 53 minutes. This strike was not in keeping with the general malaise. Tillman deserves immense credit for such quality. The on-loan Bayern Munich picked the ball up on the right, inside his own half, after a neat flick from James Tavernier and charged at Motherwell’s defence. The resistance was poor, but the American slalomed his way through five defenders to see the whites of Kelly’s eyes and stroke the ball past the keeper.
That should have pumped Rangers up, giving them the impetus to score more and kill off their opponents, but the opposite happened as this match drifted back into sleepy Sunday mode. Not that it mattered, though, as Motherwell were doing little to make this a contest. Steven Hammell’s men were too passive.
A set-play seemed the most likely avenue for a second goal. On 69 minutes, a very hopeful effort from Tavernier deflected out for a corner. Barisic’s outswinger landed plum in the danger area and Lundstram met it first. His header lacked direction or power but it came off Van Veen’s attempted block and deflected beyond Kelly. It was a fortunate moment that should have ended the contest.
Motherwell, however, won a free-kick near the corner flag on 77 minutes. McKinstry whipped the ball in and McGregor appeared to lose the flight of it, perhaps affected by the sun. It was a poor bit of a goalkeeping nevertheless as the delivery hurtled over his head and into the net to resuscitate the hosts and give the 20-year-old, on loan from Leeds United, his first goal in claret and amber.
Motherwell were now out of their slumber. Rangers had put unnecessary stress on themselves. Van Bronckhorst brought on Alfredo Morelos for the ineffective Colak to try and keep the ball held up in the Steelmen’s half. That failed. King was forced to haul down McKinstry with a robust tackle that was punished with a yellow card with three minutes to go. Motherwell felt a red was merited. Then Lundstram really should have added a second with minutes to go but instead of hitting the ball first-time on the edge of the box, he went all twinkle-toed and after beating two men, blazed over from a harder angle.
It summed up Rangers’ day. They did things the hard way. Three points in the bag, four straight leagues wins. It’s not pretty but effective – and right now, that’s what counts for Van Bronckhorst after a trying week.