Quality controls do not enter into title races. For that Rangers may be mightily grateful following a victory over St Mirren last night that was one heck of a grind. An alert finish from Jermain Defoe just after the hour, the stubbornness of Jim Goodwin’s side was matched by a ponderousness from the Ibrox men who simply do not pack the same punch when deprived of Alfredo Morelos, suspended last night.
Yet, the nature of victory simply didn’t matter. As they have throughout this campaign of giddy promise, in winning their first league encounter post-shutdown, Steven Gerrard’s side avoided one of the pitfalls they fell into a year ago. Back then, the followed a derby success with the deflation of a loss at Kilmarnock in their first game back. There was never any real threat to the pursuit of three points once their veteran English striker had pounced, but they also struggled to produce the vibrancy that might have been assumed would follow their Celtic Park exploits.
Instead, and curiously, apprehension as much as expectancy appeared to be in the air around Ibrox in the lead-up to kick-off last night. It seemed as if a realisation had seeped through to sections of the home faithful about what could be considered the upshot of breakthrough derby victory at Parkhead. Not only did it alter perceptions of where control of the title race lay in this post winter shutdown period; it could be argued it made the championship Steven Gerrard’s men to lose.
Rangers’ consistency over the first-half of the season was unrivalled by their nine-in-a-row chasing rivals, and last night they were aiming for a fifth straight league win to extend their unbeaten run in the Premiership to 16 games. Yet, all that looked as if it might be lost in the course of some mundane early stages was Rangers’ patience in wearing down opponents who initially camped on the edge of their own penalty box.
Jim Goodwin had joked that he would look to “park two buses”, in old-fashioned football parlance. In the new-fangled parlance, it was anticipated the Paisley team wouldn’t pursue the low block so much as a block positively subterranean.
That didn’t exactly square with the fact that his strategy suffered an early downer in Rangers’ final third. An attempt to break down the left by Kyle Magennis as he was shadowed by Jon Flanagan resulted in the midfielder writhing in agony on the turf. The encounter was held up for a full three minutes as a stretcher was constructed to ferry Magennis from the pitch. At that point St Mirren must have feared one of those nights.
Yet, not until the midpoint of meandering first half did Gerrard’s men seriously threaten. Ryan Kent exchanged passes with Joe Aribo to carve was a through inside left channel. That put the whites of Vaclav Hladky’s eyes in view for the winger, but he failed to lift a point-blank effort over the Czech keeper’s sharply spread frame. When the ball then broke out to Steven Davis and he chipped back in, Defoe on the stretch could only knock it wide.
A passage symptomatic of Rangers’ inability to demonstrate command to match their territorial dominance, that charge could not be levelled at Borna Barisic. As the first half wore on, the advance positions he took up on the left so often became the starting point for his side’s attacks. For all that the club’s captain James Tavernier is criticised for being a more wing than back left-side defender, his injury absence increased the onus on Barisic to offer a creative outlet on the other flank.
He responded and allowed Rangers to step up the pressure on an ever-more penned in visiting team. And the Croatian made his forward-thinking count in the 33rd minute by acting as unwitting provider for an opening goal that came as no great shock.
There was more than a hint of good fortune in the human pinball that ensued from Barisic’s decision to club the ball low towards goal when confronted by a posse of defenders blocking his route to goal. His drive clipped at least one St Mirren player in Conor McCarthy, and possibly another, before Defoe demonstrated his razor sharp instincts in front of goal by flashing out a leg to turn it in the net from 14 yards.
It was a moment that stood out as Rangers laboured after the interval to put away the side who are third bottom of the Premiership. Without Morelos, there is a blunting of Gerrard’s men, but against an entirely blunt opponent - a McCarthy header knocked past late on their only glimpse of an equaliser - their far-from-best was more than good enough.