Steven Gerrard can't shake Rangers issues - but at least he tackles them from summit
At the end of a week which saw the Ibrox club post another heavy financial loss, Gerrard’s men yet again had to come from behind as they ultimately swatted Ross County aside to reimpose a four-point lead over Celtic at the top of the Premiership table.
Remarkably, of the 30 league points Rangers have amassed so far in their title defence, 16 have been secured from initial losing positions in games. Joseph Hungbo’s early strike for the Dingwall club presented them with another such challenge.
Their recovery on this occasion was inspired by Ryan Kent as the winger impressed with a dazzling 60-minute contribution on his first start since returning from a two-month injury absence.
Goals from Joe Aribo, Kent, Juninho Bacuna and an own goal from Alex Iacovitti saw Rangers sign off before the international break in reasonably convincing manner, although a spirited County breached their defence again late in the game through substitute Jordan White.
It has reached the stage where it would now be more of a surprise if Rangers didn’t concede the opening goal in a match.
This was the fifth game in a row they had done so, the seventh in their 13 Premiership fixtures and 11th time in total since the season began.
It’s a habit they simply can’t shake off, although they were almost spared it on this occasion when Ianis Hagi came close to finishing off a third minute move which had seen Fashion Sakala surge clear of County captain Jack Baldwin down the left to create the opportunity.
Two minutes later, Rangers found themselves in that now all too familiar territory of being 1-0 down.
John Lundstram was unable to control a sharp pass from Hagi in midfield, allowing Regan Charles-Cook to spring a rapid counter-attack for the visitors. Hungbo looked offside as he latched onto Charles-Cook’s through ball but there was no flag as the Watford loanee raced free and calmly slid a low shot beyond the advancing Allan McGregor.
Gerrard had made five changes to his line-up from Thursday’s 1-1 Europa League draw at Brondby, the reshuffle including Lundstram and Bacuna joining Aribo in a new-look midfield trio.
Bacuna, making only his second starting appearance since joining from Huddersfield in August, provoked a few groans from the Rangers fans with a couple of misjudged passes. But he earned their approval with a weaving run into the penalty area which saw him force a smart save from Ash Maynard-Brewer as the hosts pursued a quick leveller.
They only had to wait until the 19th minute for it to come their way. Kent won a corner on the right which James Tavernier swung towards the near post. It was met by a precise header from Aribo which flashed beyond the helpless Maynard-Brewer’s right hand into the net.
With Kent and Hagi prominent, Rangers produced some inventive and cohesive passing football as they increased the pressure on a County side already looking to eat up time and slow the game down whenever possible.
But Mackay’s men were undone from another corner kick, forced by Sakala, on the half hour mark. As Leon Balogun went down after a clash with Ross Callachan as they tried to connect with Tavernier’s delivery from the right, the ball found its way to Kent just outside the left of the penalty area.
The winger shifted the ball quickly from left foot to right before unleashing a ferocious shot which rose and then dipped beyond the despairing leap of Maynard-Brewer to find the ‘keeper’s top left corner.
Bacuna forced another save from Maynard-Brewer after some slick link-up play with Sakala as Rangers looked to underline their authority on proceedings.
His influence and effectiveness steadily increasing, it was Bacuna who made it 3-1 four minutes into the second half. The Curacao international claimed his first goal for Rangers in some style, a clever exchange of passes with Aribo allowing him to find space just outside the penalty area before beating Maynard-Brewer with a powerful right foot shot.
Rangers’ fourth goal will go down as yet another assist for Tavernier, the captain surging into space on the right to deliver a low cross which County defender Iacovitti could only divert into his own net as he tried to clear.
Kent received a standing ovation when he was replaced by Kemar Roofe but the biggest cheer of the afternoon was reserved for the entrance of Ryan Jack as the midfielder ended a nine-month injury nightmare when he came on for Lundstram with 20 minutes remaining.
There was also a run-out for Nathan Patterson, the Scotland right-back deployed in an unfamiliar left-back role as he replaced Leon Balogun, who had taken a knock, and Calvin Bassey moved into central defence.
The reshuffled back four appeared anything but assured and County took advantage in the 87th minute when White pounced to beat McGregor with a smart finish. Rangers have now conceded as many goals in the league this season as they did in the whole of their title-winning campaign.
Issues certainly remain for Gerrard to address in order to restore his team to consistently optimum form but he at least has the comfort of doing so from the top of the table.
Rangers (4-3-3): McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Balogun (Patterson 71), Bassey; Aribo, Lundstram (Jack 71), Bacuna; Hagi, Sakala, Kent (Roofe 61). Subs not used: McLaughlin, Kamara, Morelos, Arfield.
Ross County (4-2-3-1): Maynard-Brewer, Clarke, Baldwin, Iacovitti, Randall; Tillson, Paton; Burroughs (Spittal 46), Callachan (Samuel 84), Charles-Cook; Hungbo (White 72). Subs not used: Laidlaw, Vokins, Robertson, Watson.
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