Not that this is a welcomed spotlight. Far from it. Dundee are at the foot of the league and have not scored since August 22. The five-game drought is becoming a problem for a parched team thirsty for goals.
This shouldn’t be an issue, on paper. Dundee’s roster includes Scotland internationalists Leigh Griffiths and Jason Cummings, Cillian Sheridan and Alex Jakubiak. These are not names normally associated with the wrong end of the division. However, they can’t find the net – even when offered the chance to score from the penalty spot. Substitute Cummings, just back from illness, spurned that invitation, denied by a good save from Rangers goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin on 59 minutes that allowed the Ibrox club – again well off their best form – to win 1-0 thanks to a first-half goal by Joe Aribo.
Rangers are doing just enough to win this type of away match. It resembled their 2-1 victory at St Johnstone earlier this month, where they failed to dominate proceedings but got the job done. This was a good, exciting encounter, with both teams fashioning chances. A draw would not have been an unreasonable outcome, but while Dundee had plenty of buzz, their visitors had the sting.
Their supporters carried plenty of venom too to make this a deeply uncomfortable afternoon for Griffiths. The on-loan Celtic forward made the headlines earlier in the week, facing a police investigation and an SFA disciplinary hearing for allegedly kicking a smoke bomb into the stand housing St Johnstone supporters during Wednesday night’s 2-0 loss in the Premier Sports Cup. While his manager, James McPake, publicly backed him and handed him a start against the defending champions, he went into the match carrying an ankle injury and only last 36 minutes before being replaced by Jason Cummings.
He will have surely felt more pain from the incessant chanting from the Rangers fans, who barracked him from the moment he appeared for the warm-up until he shuffled off towards the end of the first half. The abuse was vitriolic and will have been almost impossible to blank out. Every miss by the 31-year-old in the pre-match shooting drills were celebrated loudly by a packed Bob Shankly Stand, and during the match any slip-up was jeered. As self-inflicted as some of this situation is, it was difficult not to feel sympathy for Griffiths under such constant siege.
Of consternation to Griffiths, and Dundee, will be the fact for the time that he was on the field of play, he really ought to have scored. When a flick-on from Lee Ashcroft fell to Griffiths on seven minutes, he could not divert the ball home from six yards. A right-footed volley was well held by McLaughlin, but the best of trio of chances came on 23 minutes when, slipped in by Paul McMullan, he could only shoot weakly at McLaughlin from a very promising position.
Griffiths is still without a goal since joining Dundee and, now injured, faces a spell on the sidelines that is likely to coincide with a suspension for Wednesday’s actions. Dundee can probably do without the circus act that accompanies him right now as they try to muddle through this sticky period, and an absence might do both parties some good.
Not that a despondent Cummings fared much better when called upon to take Dundee’s penalty just before the hour-mark. It came about when teenager Max Anderson found McMullan with a devilish pass that the forward hurtled on to, leaving Connor Goldson trailing in his wake. McLaughlin rushed out to meet the forward, but only succeeded in chopping him down. As sure a penalty as you’ll see this season, the Rangers keeper was only shown a yellow card when a dismissal may have been more appropriate. McLaughlin – once again chosen in favour of Allan McGregor – stopped Cummings’ fairly weak effort with his foot. At full-time, referee Bobby Madden did find his red card, flashing it in front of McPake, the Dundee manager clearly irked by the decision.
Dundee can cling on to the fact that they are playing reasonably well. McMullan was a pest throughout to Rangers, a run straight from the kick-off reminiscent of a child going on a mazy in the playground. He beat three surprised Rangers players before his shot was blocked. It was the first of many good moments for the ex-Celtic kid, who will be an important player for Dundee this term. They looked solid in a new 3-5-2 formation. A league win isn’t far away.
Rangers, of course, had their moments too. They struck the all-important blow on 16 minutes with a lovely move. Captain James Tavernier – playing his 300th game for the club – played the ball into Alfredo Morelos on the edge of the penalty box. The Colombian flicked it in behind the Dundee defence for Aribo to run on to and the Nigerian steadied himself before curling a strike past Adam Legdzins and into the net.
Ianis Hagi – handed a start after making the difference during the week against Livingston – had some nice touches, especially in the first half, but Rangers are not firing on all cylinders. The cloak of invincibility has been removed and teams are not afraid to have a go, but as champions so often do, they are finding a way to win while being off-colour. However, with Sparta Prague in the Europa League on Thursday and Hibs on league duty on Sunday up next, that level will need to be raised.
While both they and Dundee will be pleased with various aspects of this match, improvements are needed by both – for different reasons.