Rangers grasp opportunity with thumping win against St Johnstone to put pressure on Celtic

Ibrox side are dominant in victory over Saints

Rangers celebrate their win over St Johnstone.

Opportunity has knocked for Rangers and they look eager to answer the call.

Celtic’s enforced absence from the Premiership title race means Steven Gerrard’s team could open up an 11-point gap between the Old Firm rivals before the nine-in-a-row champions are scheduled to resume their title defence after the postponements precipitated by Boli Bolingoli’s breach of Covid-19 protocol.

Sign up to our Football newsletter

Sign up to our Football newsletter

While it remains far too early to assess how significant that might be, Rangers duly maintained their 100 percent winning start to the season with an ultimately commanding victory over St Johnstone which took them to the top of the table on goal difference.

A magnificent free-kick from Borna Barisic set them on their way before goals from Ryan Kent and Joe Aribo took the game away firmly away from Callum Davidson’s men.

While it was far from a complete performance by Rangers, they are carrying the demeanour and focus of a team who believe this is a campaign where their bid to dethrone Celtic can be sustained.

The sublime set piece mastery of Barisic is now a firmly established weapon in Rangers’ armoury but, on the balance of play in the opening 20 minutes, they scarcely merited the lead his latest exhibition of technical excellence gave them.

St Johnstone made by far the brighter and more progressive start to the contest, clearly determined not to be utterly dominated in the manner St Mirren were here three days earlier.

Hassling and pressing their hosts, the Perth side might easily have gone in front themselves inside the opening five minutes as they created a couple of more than decent opportunities.

Jamie McCart’s reaction suggested he felt he should have done better than head over from eight yards after being picked out by Craig Conway’s free-kick, before Callum Hendry passed up an even more inviting chance. As Saints capitalised on some loose defending by Rangers, the striker turned inside Leon Balogun to find himself with only Jon McLaughlin to beat.

Hendry looked a clear favourite but Rangers ‘keeper McLaughlin, retaining his place with Allan McGregor still injured, got down low to his right to turn the shot wide.

It took Rangers some time to even hint at the fluency which characterised their win over St Mirren. Kent blazed their first attempt at goal well over the top in the 14th minute and, even at that stage, there was a hint of frustration creeping into some of their work.

But that was soothed when Barisic claimed the 21st minute opener. David Wotherspoon conceded the free-kick with a clumsy challenge on Alfredo Morelos around 22 yards out on the left side of Saints’ penalty area. Barisic weighed the situation up before curling the ball over the defensive wall and high beyond the left hand of Saints ‘keeper Elliot Paris into the corner of the net.

Rangers suddenly had positive momentum and the visitors’ defence began to look stretched and uneasy for the first time. Parish flapped at a cross from Kent and was fortunate the ball dropped just far enough from Morelos to prevent the striker taking advantage.

Gerrard's men were now firmly in control of possession, moving the ball around with patience and accuracy. One move of around 30 passes, involving almost every outfield player, culminated in Morelos firing a shot over the top.

Saints appeared to have regained a foothold in the match as the interval approached but before they could reflect and regroup, they found themselves 2-0 down in first half stoppage time.

It was a well worked goal from Rangers, Ianis Hagi and Joe Aribo involved in the build-up before Barisic found space on the left to whip over a low cross which Kent guided first time beyond Parish with a low shot.

Gerrard was forced into a change for the start of the second half with Balogun, who had suffered a painful looking blow to his lower back, replaced in central defence by Filip Helander.

But there was no disruption to the control of proceedings Rangers had secured and it was effectively game over when they made it 3-0 four minutes after the resumption.

Parish made a smart save to keep out a close range effort from Morelos but he was well beaten from the subsequent corner kick, whipped over from the right by James Tavernier, which was headed home at the near post by Aribo.

With the job done, there was the novel spectacle of a quadruple substitution by Rangers on the hour mark as Gerrard made the most of the new SPFL rule on replacements. Among the new entrants were Kemar Roofe, making his debut, and fellow recent striking recruit Cedric Itten.

Rangers were unable to add to their lead but Gerrard would take just as much satisfaction from a third clean sheet in three league games so far, this one preserved by McLaughlin’s fine save to keep out a close range header from Saints substitute Isaac Olaofe.