Joe Aribo exorcised the memory of the sickening head wound sustained on his last visit to Livingston two months ago to help knock out the hosts.
His stylish opening goal was the perfect act of revenge, a dish served very, very cold by the Nigerian in freezing West Lothian.
When Steven Gerrard scans the list of away appointments at the start of the season, it’s very possible he looks for Celtic Park dates first..and then the Tony Macaroni Arena.
Of all the venues on the Premiership roster, this ground has proved an awkward and often bruising assignment. Gerrard's side fell to defeat here last season. Earlier in this campaign, Rangers were relieved to escape with a narrow 1-0 win in the Betfred Cup on a night when the Astroturf’s ability to soak up blood was tested following an aerial challenge between Ricki Lamie and Aribo. It cost the Rangers midfieder a few weeks of his season and the incident loomed large in the run up to this fixture.
Aribo was far happier to leave a mark of class on the proceedings yesterday after returning to the starting XI – he was one of only two changes to the team that defeated Porto last Thursday night. A fizzing shot into the top corner to open the scoring extinguished any doubts that he might be negatively affected by flashbacks of the injury requiring 20 stitches sustained here in September.
In fact, the memory seemed to inspire him as he set up an impressive victory for his side. It was his first league goal for the club, his fifth in all competitions.
There was also an obligatory goal from Alfredo Morelos – his 22 nd of the season and eighth in last seven outings. The Colombian striker’s appetite for putting the ball in the net is as fierce on a bitterly cold afternoon in West Lothian as it is on a high octane occasion such as last midweek’s Europa League win over Porto. Never mind the opposition, never mind the conditions, just feel the quality.
But it was the narrative arc involving Aribo that captured the imagination. He was very much in mind prior to the game when Livingston’s supposedly robust style was a subject addressed once again by Gerrard.
He stressed he was unhappy with their approach and manager Gary Holt’s defence of it, with the Livingston manager risking irking Gerrard further when he wondered, in a newspaper column yesterday, that if Walter Smith was in charge at Ibrox, would he have lowered himself to making such comments? He suggested not. “As a manager I attempt to keep my grievances private,” Holt said.
The manager was clearly taking his own advice, delivered to his players often enough, about not respecting reputations. It might also have been an attempt to ensure Nick Walsh heeded another point of view after Gerrard’s pre-match comments about hoping the referee was up to the task of protecting his players. Rangers v Celtic, Man City v Liverpool? Pah. This is a rivalry that’s been getting very tasty for some time now.
There were some initial signs yesterday that Rangers were allowing themselves to be drawn into a battle they might find it tough to win. Livingston did what Livingston do and, whatever Gerrard says, it was mostly done within the law.
One late and high challenge, by Jack McMillan on Glen Kamara, right in front of the dugouts, drew howls of outrage from the Rangers fans and left the Rangers player in a daze. McMillan was penalised with a yellow card.
It was mostly sore on the eyes of those watching. Two ball were lost over the main stand. A swerving Ryan Jack shot had tested Matija Sarkic early on but other than that, there were precious few goalscoring chances in the opening half hour before Ryan Kent rifled a shot just past Sarkic’s far post following a neat lay off from Kamara.
Three minutes later Rangers struck after sweeping move downfield involving Morelos, Scott Arfield and Aribo, with the last two combining to create the chance.
Aribo did not need to be asked twice as he drove into the box. He took full advantage of the space opening up to crash a shot beyond Sarkic containing all the venom expected from someone who felt they had suffered an injustice on their last visit.
His celebrations, too, seemed cathartic. Rangers might have taken a two-goal lead into the interval but Kamara was denied by a terrific save from Sarkic. Securing this margin of comfort was only delayed until seven minutes after the re-start when Morelos wriggled into a position to score while holding off Livingston right-back Hakeem Odoffin after a good ball from Borna Barisic. Very few strikers could still have executed the finish from such an unpromising position.
“I thought his moment had gone,” said Gerrard later. “Only him and maybe JD (Jermain Defoe) could dig it out from there and find the bottom corner. It was a great finish and it gave us the luxury of some breathing space.”