Rangers Verdict: Steven Gerrard's men suddenly finding goals hard to come by but defensive solidity ensures title charge continues
There was more of the former than the latter in most of their play in this 1-0 win against Kilmarnock at Ibrox. Had Steven Gerrard’s men snapped up more of the clear-cut chances they created, it would have been a far more comprehensive and comfortable margin of victory.
As they go into the business end of the campaign, however, Rangers are finding free-scoring form harder to maintain. In five or their last six Premiership fixtures, they have had to settle for just one goal (the exception was the 5-0 romp against Ross County on January 23).
The disruption to Gerrard’s striking options, with the suspensions of Alfredo Morelos and Kemar Roofe who were both missing against Killie, is clearly a factor. The Rangers manager will feel optimistic his team can hit a more consistently prolific stride in front of goal in the coming weeks and months.
As it is, when their dominance of possession is not matched by their efficiency in the attacking third of the pitch, Rangers know they can usually rely on their defence to ensure the job gets done.
That wasn’t the case in the 1-1 draw against Hamilton Accies last week when they conceded a 94th minute equaliser. But they were back to their miserly best here, racking up their 22nd clean sheet in 29 Premiership games this season.
No need for McGregor heroics this week
If Allan McGregor was the hero of the hour against Accies, the veteran goalkeeper was barely required against Killie who were unable to force him into a single save of note. Remarkably, in their 14 league matches at Ibrox, Rangers have conceded just one goal.
Their 40th league goal at home was worthy of winning any contest, Ryan Jack providing a showreel moment to separate the teams and consign new Kilmarnock manager Tommy Wright to his second consecutive defeat since taking charge of the Ayrshire club.
Jack’s return to the starting line-up, along with that of fellow midfielder Steven Davis, was no surprise after the manner in which both players were so keenly missed at Hamilton the previous Sunday when they were restricted to substitute appearances.
Having announced his comeback from injury in stunning fashion with a fine goal in the win over Ross County at Ibrox three weeks earlier, Jack trumped that finish with the strike which gave Gerrard’s men the breakthrough seven minutes before the interval on this occasion.
Killie prove a tough nut to crack
Kilmarnock, as obdurate and pragmatic as you would expect of any side under Wright’s charge, had diligently subdued Rangers’ attacking efforts up until then.
A James Tavernier effort ruled out for offside and a Ianis Hagi free-kick which flew just off target were as much as the hosts had to encourage them as they tried to probe their way through Killie’s congested defensive third of the pitch.
There was little to concern Rangers at the other end, although Connor Goldson did have to make a smart block of Brandon Haunstrup’s shot when Wright’s side showed a rare glimpse of counter-attacking intent.
Jack, uncharacteristically guilty of a couple of misplaced passes in the early stages, grew in influence before breaching the Killie defence in such memorable fashion.
The visitors were unable to properly clear a Tavernier free-kick and when Leon Balogun saw a shot blocked, the ball broke to Jack on the edge of the penalty area. Bringing it under control brilliantly, Jack guided a volley high beyond the helpless Colin Doyle into the top left hand corner of the net.
In the absence of both Morelos and Roofe, it was another opportunity for Cedric Itten to showcase his credentials as a central striker for Rangers. The big Swiss international’s link-up play was impressive enough but none of Rangers’ best chances fell to him.
Instead, it was Ryan Kent and Joe Aribo who should have wrapped this contest up for Rangers long before the final stages which saw them happy to hold the ball up in the corners to see out time.
Kent should have done better than blaze over after a blunder from Killie’s Arsenal loanee Zech Medley had gifted him the ball but the winger was unfortunate when denied by a fine save from Doyle at the start of the second half.
As Killie found a little more ambition following the introduction of veteran winger Chris Burke, Rangers should have picked them off on the counter attack but an unusually bad touch from Aribo meant he was unable to finish off a lovely move involving Itten and Kent as his shot was deflected wide by Doyle.
Kilmarnock had a late claim for a penalty kick rejected by referee Don Robertson but while it looked like a foul by Leon Balogun on Danny Whitehall, the offence took place just outside the box.
The fist-pumping reaction of the Rangers players at the final whistle told its own story as another hard-earned but fully merited victory was notched up. The finishing line is clearly in sight. One way or another, they are going to cross it in triumph now.
Rangers (4-3-3): McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Balogun, Barisic; Jack, Davis, Aribo; Hagi (Wright 78), Itten, Kent (Arfield 88). Subs not used: McLaughlin, Bassey, Helander, Defoe, Patterson, Kamara, Stewart.
Kilmarnock (4-3-3): Doyle, McGowan, Dikamona, Medley, Haunstrup; Mulumbu, Dicker (Burke 64), Tshibola (Dabo 80); Kiltie, Kabamba, McKenzie (Whitehall 79). Subs not used: Rogers, Oakley, Rossi, Pierrick, Pinnock, Millen.
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