It wasn’t quite the requiem for a dream. However, with the maladies afflicting Steven Gerrard’s men – which have cost them five points inside a week – it may not be long before the undertakers are called in for the Ibrox club’s title challenge.
Gerrard talked of his men lacking a “spark” in their four games since returning from the winter break. And it was impossible not to compare how dulled they became as Derek McInnes’ men held firm when set against Celtic flicking the switch to produce three goals inside the closing minutes when faced with an equally obdurate Hamilton Accies yesterday lunchtime.
Of course, the Pittodrie side are one of the best teams in the country and had their full complement to repel their hosts. In contrast, Celtic found a way against a ten-man team consigned to the foot of the Premiership.
However, it is inescapable that Rangers are devoid of the game-changers that the Scottish champions could lean upon in Lanarkshire yesterday to establish a seven-point lead at the top of the table, having played a game more than their ancient rivals.
Gerrard bemoaned the loss of creative outlet James Tavernier, a full-back he says plays more like a winger for his team, who made the bench after his appendix operation in January. He was frustrated at the rustiness of Alfredo Morelos, who couldn’t find a way past Joe Lewis with his one huge opportunity in his first start in five weeks. And, undoubtedly, the injury to Ryan Jack upset the balance of the Rangers midfield.
However, this does not explain the inability of such as Ryan Kent – the £7 million attacker increasingly failing to convince as a player able to be relied upon to unpick defences – Joe Aribo and Scott Arfield to stretch or play through Aberdeen.
Indeed, as Rangers became more hurried and unfocused in their search for a goal, it was their opponents that passed up the best opportunities to bag one, Sam Cosgrove no doubt having nightmares about his terrible touch when through on Allan McGregor. The Ibrox keeper was required to make a host more stops than opposite number Lewis.
Gerrard’s men simply do not possess the match-winners or the calibre of player Celtic have at their disposal and have utilised to storm back post-shutdown. The loan acquisitions of Ianis Hagi and Florian Kamberi do not change that fact, even if the pair could prove useful additions.
And neither should Rangers be so well off when their £34m player budget is around £25m shy of what Celtic are spending on their playing personnel. It is to Gerrard’s credit that his team have succeeded in closing the gap. It is overlooked, though, that while Celtic’s only blemish in 15 league games is their December derby defeat, across that same span of games, Rangers have failed to win four games.
More worrying for the Ibrox side, their recent shortcomings heap the pressure on them in every game going forward – starting with the visit of Hibernian to Ibrox on Wednesday. They can’t afford many more slip-ups like this one.
Gerrard pointed to the fact his team will face Celtic twice as the means by which they can claw back the current deficit. Yet, that would only happen were they also to win more of the other league games than their ancient adversaries in the run-in. Right now, such a scenario seems unlikely.
Meanwhile, it seemed entirely unlikely Aberdeen could emerge from Ibrox with the standing of McInnes improved from the previous week, when he had a section of the support calling for his head after a 0-0 draw at St Mirren. His team’s tireless efforts to do that demonstrated they remain both firmly behind their manager and in the hunt for third place.
“Any time we have come here and got a bit of success every single one of us has stood up to every one of their players – and this was the exact same,” Dons defender Scott McKenna said here, saying they owed their manager a performance and that the stick he had taken was “definitely” unfair.
“What he has done at the club over the past seven years has been tremendous. I don’t think people can forget that too quickly.”