Rangers verdict: Big questions in defence and indignity for Jack Butland as brilliant Ross County provide good viewing for Celtic and Hearts

Match verdict as Rangers suffer major setback in title bid

Next stop, Mars. Maybe. Wherever it is – and McDiarmid Park has now been mooted as a venue for Wednesday's rearranged clash with Dundee if Dens Park remains unfit to play on – Rangers are now firmly in no more slip-ups territory.

It might already be too late. The likelihood is they will need to be perfect in the remaining six games, starting at a venue still to be confirmed in midweek. Philippe Clement has already pledged that his side are ready to play on Mars simply to ensure the game can take place, which is all very commendable.

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Alas for them, they found even this trip to the Highlands frontier a challenge too far. Ross County also had it all to play for as they seek to pull away from the relegation danger area and gave everything to this task. It felt like a genuine injustice that they disappeared down the tunnel at the interval trailing by a goal, which was poked into his own net by home skipper Jack Baldwin just 15 minutes in.

Rangers midfielder Todd Cantwell looks dejected as Josh Sims puts Ross County 3-1 ahead. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)Rangers midfielder Todd Cantwell looks dejected as Josh Sims puts Ross County 3-1 ahead. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)
Rangers midfielder Todd Cantwell looks dejected as Josh Sims puts Ross County 3-1 ahead. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

But they had overturned this self-inflicted setback within five minutes of the restart. It was a stunning spell that could now have serious repercussions for Rangers. If the worst really does happen and they surrender the title to Celtic having been so well placed, then a devastating three-minute spell in Dingwall might be the obvious place to start the inquest.

Simon Murray’s persistence brought Ross County level after 47 minutes although Rangers will wonder why and how he was permitted to have a second chance to bury a shot after Jack Butland blocked the first effort with his leg. The striker took full advantage and shot back across Butland into the far corner of the goal.

It was no less than County deserved. They went ahead just two minutes later. Again, big questions must be asked of the Rangers defence after a sweeping move initiated by the excellent Yan Dhana’s pass to Murray left the visitors exposed.

Nevertheless, there were still two defenders out wide to deal with the threat from the flame-haired Dundonian. A combination of James Tavernier and Connor Goldson was unable to do so. Murray cut inside before wrapping his foot around the ball. Butland got down well to save but the tireless George Harmon beat John Lundstram to the loose ball to knock the rebound into the net.

Rangers' Todd Cantwell (left) and Ross County's Yan Dhanda vie for the ball. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)Rangers' Todd Cantwell (left) and Ross County's Yan Dhanda vie for the ball. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)
Rangers' Todd Cantwell (left) and Ross County's Yan Dhanda vie for the ball. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)

With Rangers now reeling in front of their 2041 fans it wasn’t too surprising to see them concede a third with 21 minutes remaining. Eli King too easily evaded substitute Tom Lawrence before setting up Josh Sims, who calmly side-stepped Tavernier before converting.

Four goals and Rangers still hadn’t scored any of them. A visiting player finally did strike with a minute left – and in the manner perhaps expected. Tavernier converted his 50th league penalty for the club following a VAR-captured handball by substitute Brandon Khela.

Ross County players were already throwing themselves in the way of shots as they defended a two-goal lead. Such heroism became even more pronounced in the final stages as they sought to protect the narrow one-goal advantage and move to within a point of tenth-placed St Johnstone.

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Meanwhile, Rangers centre-back John Souttar dispensed with the Terry Butcher-style bandage around his head. This was football in the raw. And, it must be noted, football in terrific conditions, pitch included. There can be no complaints from Rangers. None whatsoever.

There were certainly no complaints from the neutral just seven days after a six-goal Old Firm epic. Butland even came up to the opposite goalmouth towards the end as Rangers' desperation for an equaliser saw their goalkeeper being encouraged to join the fray at a corner. To think someone who could be returning to the England international squad at Euro 2024 had been reduced to such indignity. It was absurd, really, that Rangers were in this predicament – and yet they were.

Slackness from the visitors – Cyriel Dessers ought to have had a hat-trick – combined with some genuinely bright play from enterprising County meant the outcome of this game was still very much in question despite Rangers’ interval lead.

The half-time situation seemed unfair on the hosts, who had given as much as Rangers in a rousing opening 45 minutes. Both sides rued poor finishing in either half. Dessers even cleared the stand at the 'Jail End' of the ground with one shot before being replaced by Kemar Roofe after 72 minutes. Few Rangers fans were lamenting this switch.

Although he hasn’t played since last year, this was another outing when Danilo’s name was to the forefront. What might be the case had he not sustained a season-ending knee injury in December? And then there's the Lawrence Shankland-shaped elephant in the room.

Another takeaway was what a player Hearts have recruited in Dhanda, who is now counting down the games before swapping the Highlands for Gorgie and – perhaps – becoming one of Shankland’s teammates. The No. 10 was a joy to watch and was at the centre of much of the hosts’ good play. It might have been better for the hosts had he or Murray been in the spot occupied by Harmon on two occasions in the first half.

The first of these chances may simply have come too early for the full back. Fans were still settling into their seats when a cross from Victor Loturi found its way to Harmon at the back post. The 23-year-old could only direct the ball onto the top of the net rather than past Butland with many expecting a linesman’s flag for offside or some other infringement. It felt as if Rangers had stopped playing for some reason.

The fans behind the goal held their breath as Harmon failed to convert and they did so again when King’s cutback found the same player near the 12-yard-spot seven minutes before the interval.

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He blazed high over. It was a case of third time lucky when Harmon finally did score, netting for the first time since that epic play-off final against Partick Thistle almost a year ago. How Rangers must now wish Ross County had disappeared through the trapdoor.



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