Rangers 2-0 Ross County: Gers' return to winning ways overshadowed by injury to Jermain Defoe
It was another far from stellar display from Steven Gerrard’s side who continue to find their impressive form of December infuriatingly elusive.
But goals just before and just after half-time from Jermain Defoe and Scott Arfield ensured they did not lose any further ground on champions Celtic at the top of the Premiership.
Defoe’s goal took his tally for the season to 17 but it may be some time before the veteran striker can add to it. In a potentially telling blow for Rangers’ title hopes, he left the field on a stretcher after pulling up with a calf injury.
Any lengthy spell on the sidelines for Defoe would leave Rangers with scant cover up front and may prompt a late move for reinforcements before the transfer window closes on Friday night.
Gerrard described his team as ‘unrecognisable’ in their 2-1 defeat at Hearts on Sunday but the sluggishness of their performances since the winter break are becoming all too familiar as far as the Rangers supporters are concerned.
There were grumbles and groans aplenty from the Ibrox stands as their team laboured once again before Defoe’s breakthrough placated them just before the break.
Gerrard made three changes to the line-up which flopped in Gorgie with Matt Polster, Arfield and Sheyi Ojo replacing Jon Flanagan, Ryan Jack and Joe Aribo.
American international Polster, who caught the eye as a second half substitute against Hearts, again looked composed and comfortable at right-back.
He was one of Rangers’ more effective attacking outlets as they struggled to break Ross County down and he almost caught goalkeeper Nathan Baxter out with a dangerous cross in the fifth minute, the on-loan Chelsea youngster scrambling backwards to clutch the ball on the line.
While County’s priority was to maintain a disciplined and defensive 4-5-1 shape in order to frustrate Rangers, they also produced some enterprising football on the counter attack.
A slip from Connor Goldson almost presented Blair Spittal with a sight of goal but the Rangers defender, captaining his side again in the continued absence of James Tavernier, recovered the situation.
Ryan Kent forced Baxter into action again when he burst into the penalty area from the left, the ‘keeper reacting well down to his left to turn the winger’s shot wide.
Ojo has flattered to deceive too often to nail down a regular place in Gerrard’s side and the on-loan Liverpool winger looked less than convincing as he was handed his latest opportunity to impress.
With Rangers generally restricted to shots from long distance, Ojo did find space to try his luck a couple of times but screwed his first attempt well off target and saw his second deflected wide.
In between times, Arfield also saw a shot from the edge of the box take a nick off a County defender to loop over the top.
Just as they had against Stranraer and St Mirren in their first two home games of 2020, Rangers were making heavy weather of it. But the dark mood developing among the home fans was lightened by an instinctive piece of Defoe finishing four minutes before the break.
Borna Barisic finally managed to find space in behind the County defence down the left and the Croatian full-back’s cross caused uncertainty in the visitors’ ranks. As the ball looped in the air, Arfield managed to head it on towards Defoe who, in one smooth movement, brought it under control and beat Baxter with a right foot shot on the turn.
While the goal would come as a welcome relief to Gerrard, it’s safe to assume it wouldn’t have spared his players from the sharp end of his tongue during the interval.
They re-emerged with a far more purposeful demeanour and took just over 60 seconds of the second half to double their lead.
It was a cleverly engineered goal as Defoe matched the quality of his earlier finish with the sublime standard of the assist on this occasion as he backheeled Ojo’s through ball into the path of Arfield who poked a low finish under Baxter from just inside the penalty area.
Sadly for Defoe, his key role in that goal proved to be his final significant contribution of the evening. Just before the hour mark, he pulled up in obvious distress as he was racing towards the County penalty area. After lengthy treatment, he was carried off on a stretcher and replaced by Aribo.
The identity of the substitute was something of a surprise given the presence of Alfredo Morelos on the bench but the home fans only had to wait a further five minutes for the introduction of the Colombian international.
He replaced Kent as he returned to action after serving a three-match suspension and almost marked the occasion with a stunning third goal for Rangers in the closing stages, chipping an audacious effort from the edge of the penalty area just over the top.