Steven Gerrard’s squad finished the weekend as they started it, one point clear at the top of the table. But even the news that Celtic had fallen further off the early pace with their defeat at Livingston couldn’t mitigate the frustration among a Rangers support who saw league points dropped at Ibrox for the first time in 18 months.
A remarkable run of 21 consecutive home victories in the Premiership came to an end as Kaiyne Woolery’s strike for Motherwell midway through the second half cancelled out Fashion Sakala’s early opener for the hosts.
Rangers paid the price for failing to make their long spells of dominance count, posting 24 attempts at goal. Motherwell’s spoiling tactics infuriated the Rangers fans as much as the wastefulness of their own team but Graham Alexander’s side showed admirable resilience to secure a result which maintains their own fine start to the campaign.
With a suspicion of offside around Sakala’s goal and his belief a penalty should have been awarded when Tony Watt went down under a clumsy Kemar Roofe challenge, Alexander will feel his team earned any good fortune which came their way.
In a season already significantly disrupted for Rangers by injuries and Covid-related absences, Gerrard believes the depth of his squad will be tested more strenuously than at any other stage of his tenure.
Sakala is among those he will hope can step up and come to the fore and the Zambian international’s first competitive goal for the club was the perfect way for him to indicate he is ready to meet the challenge.
In a new look front three, Sakala initially lined up as the central figure with Roofe on the left and Scott Wright on the opposite side. But the interchangeable nature of the trio quickly became evident and it was Roofe who more regularly took up the role as the attacking spearhead.
With Joe Aribo dropping back in midfield, where his artistry complimented the industry and tactical awareness of Steven Davis and Glen Kamara, the title holders produced some of their most fluent and incisive attacking football since the start of what has been a disjointed campaign. Sakala’s goal apart, however, they continue to lack the required cutting edge.
They also looked less assured at the back with central defender Jack Simpson, another of the fringe members of Gerrard’s squad, providing a few heart-in-the-mouth moments for the home support.
With Filip Helander likely to be sidelined by injury until the end of the year, Rangers will need Simpson to show he can bring reliability and solidity when called upon at the heart of their back four. This wasn’t a day when he advanced an especially strong case on that front.
He was caught out by a simple punt up the pitch from Motherwell goalkeeper Liam Kelly in the 11th minute, allowing Watt to get goal side of him. The former Celtic striker should have punished the error but hesitated just a fraction of a second too long as he prepared to shoot, allowing Connor Goldson to bail Simpson out with a brilliant interception on the edge of the six-yard box.
It looked like a pivotal moment in the contest as Rangers made the breakthrough just a minute later. Sakala earned a corner when his deflected shot forced a fine save from Kelly. James Tavernier’s set piece delivery from the right was exemplary and when the ball was flicked on by Aribo, Sakala displayed a fine poacher’s instinct as he headed firmly home from close range.
Rangers created no shortage of opportunities to add to their tally before the break – Sakala saw a shot cleared off the line by Juhani Ojala after the ball had squirmed underneath Kelly, while Roofe, Davis and Tavernier all tested the Motherwell ‘keeper.
The failure to get a second goal always looked as if it could come back to haunt Rangers, given the air of vulnerability in defence which is in the sharpest contrast to their record-breaking efforts in that department last season.
Motherwell’s reward for hanging in grimly arrived in the 66th minute when they took full advantage of that hesitancy at the back. Kevin van Veen managed to keep the ball in play on the left and held off Tavernier to play the ball inside to Mark O’Hara. The midfielder’s driving run caused panic inside the Rangers penalty area and Woolery got in ahead of Simpson to smash the ball beyond Allan McGregor with the visitors’ first attempt on target.
Rangers, now lacking the rhythm they had enjoyed for the first hour or so, introduced Alfredo Morelos and Juninho Bacuna in a bid to revive their attacking efforts. Bacuna showed some lovely touches on his debut, dragging a shot just wide with his first involvement and doing enough to suggest he could prove to be a handy acquisition for Gerrard.
But even the addition of six minutes of stoppage time, a testament to Motherwell’s often blatant time-wasting, was not sufficient for Rangers to find a winner. The closest they came was when Aribo’s shot was deflected just wide off Morelos, although an offside flag rendered the chance irrelevant.
Rangers (4-3-3): McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Simpson, Barisic; Aribo, Davis (Arfield 81), Kamara; Roofe, Sakala (Bacuna 76), Wright (Morelos 76). Subs not used: McLaughlin, Bassey, Lundstram, Balogun.
Motherwell (4-3-3): Kelly, O’Donnell, Mugabi, Ojala (Lamie 76), McGinley; Grimshaw, Slattery, O’Hara; Woolery, Van Veen (Donnelly 90+3), Watt (Roberts 84). Subs not used: Fox, Amaluzor, Crawford, Maguire.