Steven Gerrard’s men had to content themselves with a share of the spoils against a bold and gutsy Hearts side who delivered arguably their best performance yet of an often troubling campaign.
Craig Levein’s side remain without a home league victory since March but this was an afternoon which offered encouragement of better times ahead to their supporters.
For Rangers, there is obvious frustration at relinquishing leadership in the title race just a fortnight after they had claimed it. They remain level on points with Celtic, trailing the champions by just a solitary goal, but both the timing and quality of this patchy display will irritate their manager.
It was a breathless and exhilarating start to the contest from Hearts which appeared to catch Rangers cold. The visitors would have had little cause for complaint had they found themselves trailing by more than just Ryotaro Meshino’s fully deserved breakthrough from Levein’s side.
The high tempo, front foot approach from Hearts had its focal point in the considerable form of Uche Ikpeazu. Gerrard’s decision to recall Nikola Katic to the heart of his defence may have been made with the intention of matching Ikpeazu’s physicality but that wasn’t how it panned out in those early stages.
Katic simply couldn’t cope with the big Hearts striker and the constant complaints from the Croatian defender to the match officials betrayed just how uncomfortable the experience was for him.
Ikpeazu was unfortunate not to put Hearts ahead inside the opening 90 seconds when he met Sean Clare’s cross from the right and saw his header thump off Allan McGregor’s crossbar with the Rangers goalkeeper well beaten.
Ikpeazu was like a beacon his team-mates simply couldn’t fail to connect with and he was next picked out by Jake Mulraney’s cross, his header this time not threatening McGregor’s goal.
But the relentlessness of Hearts’ play was rewarded with Meshino’s sixth minute goal which underlined just how spooked the Rangers defence were. When Katic was yet again outmuscled by Ikpeazu, a nervy James Tavernier was unable to clear on the edge of the penalty area.
The ball broke to Mulraney and although his shot was brilliantly saved by McGregor, Meshino was composure personified as he followed up and lofted a shot over the ‘keeper.
As Hearts looked to press home their advantage, Rangers dug in and gradually secured a foothold in the contest. It took them 20 minutes to place the Hearts goal under any pressure as both Alfredo Morelos and Scott Arfield saw close range shots blocked following a Tavernier corner.
Hearts were wary of the threat posed by Morelos and both Glenn Whelan and Aidy White were booked for calculated fouls on the Colombian striker when he was poised to break free.
Rangers’ frustration at their struggle to find any rhythm or fluency amid the generally frenetic action got the better of McGregor when the veteran ‘keeper was also cautioned for a show of dissent towards referee Kevin Clancy.
But McGregor’s team-mates enjoyed a greater share of possession as half-time approached and Steven Davis almost claimed an equaliser with an unconventional effort, his diving header from all of 18 yards squirming narrowly wide of Joel Pereira’s left hand post.
The chance came from a corner conceded after Aaron Hickey was caught in possession on the edge of his own penalty area. The coveted teenager, starting the match in a less familiar right-back role, didn’t learn his lesson and was culpable when Rangers did draw level six minutes before the interval.
Hickey this time conceded a corner when under little pressure. Borna Barisic whipped it over from the left and when Katic flicked it on, Morelos was left unmarked at the far post to ram home his 15th goal of the season.
Rangers tried to exert a more sustained level of control on proceedings after the break but significant cohesion in the attacking third of the pitch continued to elude them. Tavernier was especially guilty, producing a series of poorly directed or overhit deliveries from promising positions.
Davis and Morelos both came close with sweetly struck shots from distance, both deflected narrowly wide of Pereira’s goal, but the Hearts ‘keeper was not being posed any serious questions.
With Sheyi Ojo flattering to deceive down the left for Rangers, where his pace was not matched by an end product, he was replaced by Ryan Kent for the closing stages. The return to action of the £7 million winger, who suffered a hamstring injury on his second ‘debut’ for the club last month, was greeted warmly by the 3000 travelling fans.
But aside from cutting inside to unleash a 25 yard shot which wasn’t too far off target, Kent was unable to make any telling impact.
A loud but wildly optimistic penalty claim for Rangers, when Arfield was blocked by Hickey, was waved aside and during a tense and scrappy finale, which saw the yellow card count steadily increase, it was Hearts who came closest to snatching a winner when Christophe Berra’s header from Oliver Bozanic’s long throw-in was clutched by McGregor.