TO say Rangers have turned a corner under McCall would be a tremendous understatement.
Rangers - 2
Miller (28), Vuckic (38)
Hearts - 1
Referee: B Madden
In this deserved victory over the second-tier champions, they were confident, determined and focused, all the things missing from the rudderless group the former Motherwell boss inherited when he first walked through the doors at Ibrox.
In fact, had Lee McCulloch not seen red for a forearm smash on Osman Sow, the hosts could have dished out a hammering to a side who had previously only dropped nine points all campaign. As it was, they settled for a terrific performance, morale boosting victory and all the momentum over their closest rivals Hibernian in the hunt for second place.
The caveat to all this praise was the performance of Hearts. The pre-game talk dominated around whether they would take their foot off the gas having secured the title. While that wasn’t true, evidenced by their late fightback, there was little doubt the lack of motivation had a detrimental effect on their performance.
The champions played some of their worst football this season in the opening 45 minutes and followed up the lacklustre period with an unimaginative second half in which they failed to break down their hosts, despite having a one-man advantage and most of the ball.
That’s not a disservice to Rangers, who easily were the better side during a first half in which they secured their two-goal advantage, and looked certain to see out the rest of the match in a relatively untroubled manner before McCulloch’s red.
“We set up a gameplan to stop Hearts playing because they are a good side, no doubt about that,” said McCall. “We scored two terrific goals and some of the passing and the tempo was outstanding.
“I thought second half we showed guts, desire, being a good team. It was a hard shift second half. There are a lot of tired boys in there, but I think it was well deserved in the end.”
In the early going Rangers controlled the play behind a frenzied tempo that the visitors never looked close to matching. Hearts 4-2-3-1 gave them an extra man in midfield but Rangers more than made up for that with their urgency and work rate, and they deservedly took the lead on 28 minutes.
Bobby Madden, booed off the park for his decision to dismiss McCulloch, deserves credit for playing advantage after Miguel Pallardo was guilty of a late challenge on the home captain in the build-up to the goal.
From there, Nicky Law streaked towards the penalty area before laying off for Lee Wallace, and the former Hearts man’s low cross was turned in by Kenny Miller.
Hearts briefly flared to life, with Sam Nicholson and Jamie Walker going close in quick succession, but yet more sloppy play set in motion the chain of events which would put them 2-0 down. Under little pressure, Danny Wilson miscontrolled a high ball directly out of play. From the resulting throw-in the ball was worked to Dean Shiels in the centre and he found Haris Vuckic on the right. With his marker playing off him, Vuckic was able to pick his spot and bent a curling shot into the far corner from 18 yards.
At this point, Hearts seemed desperate for the half-time whistle so they could regroup, but they were thrown a lifeline courtesy of the Rangers captain.
Challenging Sow for a high ball, McCulloch led with his arm and caught the Hearts attacker flush in the face. Play continued on with Walker having a chance inside the area, meaning many inside the ground, including the two managers, missed the incident. TV replays later showed there was little doubt McCulloch caught his opponent and a red card was justifiably shown.
Thanks to their one-man advantage, the visitors began to dictate play in the second half, though it was still Rangers who created the first real opportunity as Law scampered down the right before finding Nicky Clark inside the area with a low cross but he could only send a trundling effort into the hands of Neil Alexander.
Alim Ozturk flashed over when granted time and space inside the penalty area, though that incident stuck out as the only real chance Hearts created prior to their 83rd minute goal.
It had appeared the game was heading to an inevitable conclusion when a terrific cross-field pass from Ozturk found Sow running in at the back post. The striker should have done better than to direct his header right at Cammy Bell, though he was bailed out by his strike partner Genero Zeefuik who tapped home the rebound. Briefly on the ropes, Rangers could have conceded the equaliser less than 60 seconds later as Wilson’s perfectly flighted ball was heading for both Walker and substitute Billy King in behind the defence. However, the pair seemed to put each other off with the ball bouncing off Walker in the wrong direction, enabling the home defence to clear.
The home side regrouped after that and even though Hearts exerted some late pressure, Rangers never allowed their opponents another sniff at goal.
“I don’t think we did enough to win,” reflected Hearts boss Robbie Neilson. “The pleasing thing for me is that I’m sitting here at Ibrox, the team has been beaten 2-1 and everybody is devastated.
“We have to take step back and look at the big picture. We’re 23 points clear at the top of the Championship, and will be playing top-tier football next year.”
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