Rangers 1 - 0 Livingston: Gerrard’s side stutter to victory
It proved a storm-delayed encounter in more ways than one at Ibrox yesterday. Even if Rangers could only produce a display as grey as the conditions, in prevailing they at least gave themselves a degree of respite from the dark clouds threatening to engulf them entirely recently.
Hard and fast judgements of any team in the corkscrew wind and, later, drving rain that swept across Glasgow’s south side for a game orginally scheduled for 24 hours earlier would be harsh. And yet, there was nothing in the performance of Steven Gerrard’s men to suggest that they have it in them to reel off the wins they would surely require to put Celtic under real pressure in this, now nominal, title race. Too often, they were devoid of the pace and precision which characterised the thumpings they dished out on a regular basis at home in the Premiership across the first half of the season.
Set against that, following Celtic’s win at Aberdeen earlier in the day, Rangers had a game they simply could not coutenance failing to win against a stubborn Livingston side with the gap at the top of the table 13 points at kick-off. However patchy proved their play, they achieved this. They navigated a pressurised situation; the imperative. And a scenario in which they have wilted all too often recently - as evidenced in their midweek 2-1 defeat at Kilmarnock that took their dropped points in the Premiership to eight in three weeks.
In reflecting on that and Rangers’ precipitous form dip post match, defender Nikola Katic didn’t mince his words.
“I don’t know what’s happened,” he said of the past month drop-off.” Maybe people are not mentally in the right place, because it is difficult. Even today, when we face a team in a low block it is difficult to score in these conditions. But we try to keep working and hopefully we’ll get back to the right place.
“It is frustrating and the 50,000 people who come here don’t deserve the performances we have put in over the past few weeks. Sometimes it is difficult because you don’t want to hear people shouting at you from the stand, we want people behind us. But we understand them, because we know what we have to do – and what results this club and these fans deserve.
“We all saw that the second half against Killie wasn’t good. It wasn’t a real Rangers performance. The goals we conceded were like a joke, honestly. We have spoken about that with the manager as well. For the second one, I have to win the header and Connor [Goldson] has to cover me better. We have to learn quickly on that if we want to achieve something big.”
Gerrard was right to give out big moans over the officiating that cursed his team’s ability to add to Scott Arfield’s crucial 59th minute goal. Cairon Jacobs clearly handled in the box seven minutes later, and an Alfredo Morelos strike was wrongly disallowed for offside in the 72nd minute. These errors could have proved costly, with Lyndon Dykes smacking the upright in the closing minutes to the relief of a crowd by then shifting uncomfortably in their seats.
Ultimately, ahead of the visit of Braga for Thursday’s Europa League last 32 first leg, Rangers’ struggles in front of goal weren’t greatly eased by how matters unfolded against Gary Holt’s men.
Once more, though, Arfield came good for his team with his winner taking his scoring tally to four in three games. The decisive contribution brought Rangers only an eighth goal in their past seven league outings.
Ioanis Hagi showed good vision to pick out the attacker down the right and, after a neat takedown, Arfield smashed a low drive that whizzed through the legs of keeper Ryan Schoefield.
It was the one moment across the afternoon when the on-loan Huddersfield man did not excel on his league debut for the visitors. Only handed his opportunity because Rangers loanee keeper Robby McCrorie would face his parent club, the 20-year-old Englishman produced three excellent stops to deny the hosts.
In the first minute he smartly blocked at the feet of Alfredo Morelos, produced a brilliant one-handed flick to divert a thumping effort by Andy Halliday on to the bar. His alertness and athleticism were then top notch to spread himself and form an unbreachable barrier when Steven Davis had a close-range opportunity.
Livingston, deploying an unusual 3-2-3-2 formation, were content to let Rangers come on to them for the most part but also forced Allan McGregor to exhibit his goalkeeping sixth sense just before Arfield netted. The 38-year-old dropped like a stone to place his left arm exactly where it should be to prevent a well-struck hitch-kick from Aymen Souda finding a way past him.
The efforts of both keepers were the theme of the afternoon for Holt, who lamented his fifth-placed side’s inability to rustle up a point.
“Considering the conditions I thought it was a really good game of football between two sides bang at it. Both teams knew it wouldn’t be pretty given the wind and rain but both teams coped really well, “ he said. “I’m disappointed we didn’t get something out of the game and I wondered why Lyndon was shooting at his effort off the post as I thought he could have taken a touch - but that’s why he’s a striker and I wasn’t. Allan McGregor had a great save from Aymen before that as well and Ryan had a wonder save for us in the first half.
“I told the players not to use the quick rearrangement of the game as an excuse. I told them not to come in after the game and say we didn’t have time to prep right and it wasn’t our usual routine. The game was on, we accepted it and got on with it. It wasn’t ideal but both teams approached it in the right manner and went about it in the right way.”