Dunfermline 1 - 4 Rangers: Gers remain in hunt as fresh striking options come to the fore

Kevin Rutkiewicz tussles with Rangers' Lee McCulloch. Picture: SNS
Kevin Rutkiewicz tussles with Rangers' Lee McCulloch. Picture: SNS
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RUMOURS of Rangers’ demise may not have been greatly exaggerated, but on this evidence they are at least premature. The champions’ financial plight is all but certain to get worse, and their cup defeat by Dundee United showcased the shortcomings of Ally McCoist’s squad.

When it comes to the SPL, however, they are hanging in there, and remain four points behind Celtic after this latest convincing victory.

With eight goals in their last two league games, Rangers have also proved there is life beyond Nikica Jelavic. (The Croat was still officially a Rangers player when they beat Hibs at home a fortnight ago, but was rested in preparation for his sale to Everton).

No-one else in their team is anywhere near as gifted when it comes to scoring goals, but against most domestic opposition they do not need to be.

Lee McCulloch played up front with David Healy for this one, and both were on the mark in the first half after Andy Kirk had given Dunfermline a deserved lead. But once the equaliser went in, the only doubt was how many Rangers would win by, and second-half goals from Sone Aluko and Salim Kerkar produced a final score which was a fair reflection of the away team’s superiority.

The defence was uncharacteristically hesitant, particularly early on. Kyle Bartley was unconvincing at right-back, and at the opening goal Lee Wallace was guilty of getting out of the way of a low cross from Jordan McMillan, allowing Kirk to knock it in at the far post.

By that time, Dunfermline had already come close to scoring, initially through David Graham who fired a shot from the left off the far post. Kirk’s shot from the rebound was blocked and came out to Liam Buchanan, whose attempt to get a shot off was prevented by Bartley – illegally, the home team claimed, but the referee rightly ruled the contact had been legal.

Rangers’ weakness at the back was counteracted by their strength in central midfield, in which Steven Davis and Maurice Edu became more dominant the longer the game went on. Mark Kerr, the home team’s best player, battled to prevent the Rangers duo getting a stranglehold, and had some success in the first half.

By the time he hobbled off in the second half, however, his team were 2-1 down and close to being overrun, and the decisive third goal duly followed a minute or two later.

The Dunfermline defence could do little about that one, a fine strike by Aluko from 25 yards out. But they should have done more to resist Rangers’ recovery, which produced an equaliser just eight minutes after Kirk’s opener.

If the home team had held on to their lead for longer, they might just have induced some anxiety in their opponents, and in the away support. But their susceptibility was laid bare almost immediately when Sasa Papac headed an Aluko cross over the bar, and was punished soon afterwards when Healy, first to the rebound from a blocked Edu shot, tapped in the equaliser.

A drive from Davis glanced off the junction of post and crossbar as Rangers upped the tempo in search of the lead, then a move between the Northern Irishman and McCulloch came close to making the breakthrough but ended in a corner.

Finally, those two combined with Carlos Bocanegra to produce the crucial goal six minutes before the break: Davis drifted a free-kick beyond the back post, the central defender headed it across goal and McCulloch shot home, all but unchallenged, from ten yards.

In the second half, Davis used his pace to increasing effect as the home defence tired, but Aluko rivalled him as the game’s most influential player for a spell, clearing off the line from an Alex Keddie header following a corner. By then McCoist had made a double substitution, with Kirk Broadfoot coming on for Bartley and Mervan Celik replacing Healy. Broadfoot played solidly enough, but Celik, as had been the case in his previous two appearances, failed to impress. A couple of stuttering stepovers only highlighted his lack of finesse, and a woefully wayward shot was further proof of his lack of sharpness.

Kerkar, Rangers’ third substitute, made a more positive impact after coming on for Papac. Livelier than Celik and with a surer touch, he was in the right place at the right time to shoot home his team’s fourth goal after the Swede’s header from a Davis cross had been saved by Chris Smith.

Keddie claimed afterwards that the score had not been a fair reflection of play, but it was hard to agree. It might have been 5-1 or 5-2 in a contest which saw both defences well below their best, but there was no disputing Rangers’ superiority.

Still, at least Dunfermline can put this result to one side, knowing that the games against the sides closer to their end of the table are the crucial ones. A point behind Hibs, they have a big game at home to Caley Thistle on Saturday, followed by a midweek visit to Celtic then a game at St Johnstone.

At this stage of the season, a couple of wins would give the bottom club a massive lift.

For their part, Rangers are surely no more than a couple of defeats away from the end of their title challenge against rivals who have racked up 14 victories on the trot. But so far, they are still clinging on.