Where would Rangers be without Alfredo Morelos? That was doubtless the question on the lips of most of the Ibrox club’s followers as they left Perth following a victory which maintains their favourites’ strong interest in a tightly-contested title race.
The Colombian striker’s second-half double, taking his tally for the campaign to 19, helped Steven Gerrard’s side recover from a limp first-half display in which Matty Kennedy gave St Johnstone a merited lead.
The victory moved Rangers back into second place in the Premiership, one point behind Celtic who have a game in hand. But if Gerrard is to sustain a credible title challenge beyond the turn of the year, then resisting any January transfer window offers for Morelos is simply a must.
Before the 22-year-old salvaged their afternoon, Rangers too often lacked both the tempo and guile to impose themselves on a diligently organised Saints side who carried a consistent threat on the counter attack.
James Tavernier did his best to get the visitors on the front foot in the opening stages and created the first chance of the contest in the fourth minute. The Rangers captain’s inviting cross from the right found its way to the far post where Andy Halliday nipped in ahead of Murray Davidson to stab a shot just wide of Zander Clark’s left-hand post.
Tavernier was the only attacking outlet which showed any promise for Rangers as he continued to forage down the right, providing another good delivery which Daniel Candeias was unable to either bring under control or get a clean shot on target from around 12 yards.
At the other end, the Rangers central defensive pairing of Connor Goldson and Joe Worrall always appeared liable to make the kind of unforced error which presented Kennedy with his first sniff of goal in the 19th minute. On that occasion, Goldson was able to retrieve the situation after his mistake.
Hesitation between Goldson and Worrall invited more trouble for Rangers three minutes later, Kennedy racing clear and setting up a chance for Davidson who lobbed his effort just over Allan McGregor’s crossbar.
St Johnstone continued to look the more threatening side and Liam Craig missed a clear chance to put them ahead in the 26th minute when he headed wide from close range after Davidson had nodded a David Wotherspoon corner back across goal.
Tavernier tried to spark Rangers into life again and when his cross was only partially cleared to the edge of the penalty area, Ross McCrorie wasn’t too far off target with a powerful right-foot shot.
Morelos was being starved of support, Rangers’ top scorer having to rove deep and wide in at attempt to bring an influence to proceedings. The Colombian was finally presented with a sight of goal eight minutes before half-time when he latched on to a Candeias cross but his right-foot shot deflected just wide off team-mate Eros Grezda.
Rangers were forced into a change when left-back Borna Barisic limped off, replaced by former club captain Lee Wallace who received a warm ovation from the visiting support as he made only his second appearance of the season. But Wallace, whose previous outing as a substitute under Gerrard coincided with the concession of a late equaliser against Motherwell at Fir Park in August, barely had time to settle into proceedings before Kennedy put Saints in front.
It was a well-taken goal by the former Kilmarnock and Everton man who latched on to Scott Tanser’s cross from the left and completely wrong-footed Halliday as he switched the ball from his right to left foot and drove a shot high beyond McGregor from around eight yards.
Gerrard made his second change at the start of the second half, replacing the utterly ineffective Grezda with Glenn Middleton as he desperately sought to bring some purpose and dynamism to his attack. There was little initial sign of improvement from his side, prompting Gerrard to make his final substitution as early as the 56th minute when the anonymous Lassana Coulibaly made way for Kyle Lafferty.
The reshaped and reshuffled Rangers line-up clicked into gear nine minutes later as they drew level through Morelos.
The move was started by Goldson, picking out Middleton’s run down the left with a fine pass. The young winger steadied himself before whipping over a superb cross which Morelos met with a firm close-range header to give Clark no chance.
Saints almost regained the lead in rapid fashion, Kennedy cutting in from the left and curling a right-foot shot inches wide of McGregor’s left-hand post. The Rangers goalkeeper then made a smart save to keep out a Blair Alston effort as play became increasingly stretched.
Clark made a sharp double stop to prevent Rangers going ahead in the 73rd minute, keeping out close-range efforts by Candeias and Lafferty as the visitors started to carry greater menace in attack.
The Saints keeper came to his side’s rescue again nine minutes later, diving to his right to keep out a half volley by Lafferty after Goldson had headed a Halliday free-kick back across goal.
Chances were now being created with regularity at both ends and Alston should have restored the hosts’ lead when he headed over the crossbar from close range from Richard Foster’s cross.
Instead, it was Rangers who struck late to secure all three points. Tavernier dredged up the effort for one more surge forward from right-back and his cross picked out Morelos who thumped a superb first-time finish beyond Clark at the near post.
Morelos was booked for his celebrations – his 13th caution of the season – before Rangers saw out a valuable win ahead of their festive Ibrox double header against Hibernian and Celtic this week.