It’s a different competition when Rangers travel to face Kilmarnock on Wednesday night. However, the stakes remain as high, if not higher, as when Steven Gerrard’s side overcame Hamilton Accies, eventually, in the Scottish Cup on Saturday.
There’s little margin for error. Not when Rangers know they need to make up ground on leaders Celtic. Scott Arfield risked damaging Rangers’ chances of progressing to the last eight by failing to convert his penalty at the first time of asking after Jamie Hamilton felled Alfredo Morelos. His nonchalant conversion of the rebound following Luke Southwood’s save made up for it.
Gerrard admitted he might have to re-think Rangers’ penalty strategy yet again. The Ibrox side have only netted four of their nine awards this season – though Arfield will claim he scored his in the final analysis. Either way, he’s determined to take the next one after waiting patiently for the chance all season.
“I had put my hand up but I was down the queue,” he said. “Tav [James Tavernier] started off and then it went to Alfredo and Jermain [Defoe]. I was just waiting my turn to see if they miss.”
Arfield perhaps proved he’s more accurate from 22 yards than 12 yards. The second goal of his brace was one of the best he’s scored and crashed into the net off the underside of the bar to complete the 4-1 win. Rangers had needed both this and Morelos’ earlier header to finally subdue a Hamilton side who equalised before half-time through Lewis Smith and took the game to the visitors for a spell.
“I have taken a few penalties in my career before,” said Arfield. “I took a few for Falkirk and a few down south in big games.”
Arfield scored in the penalty shoot-out at Wembley in 2012 when his side Huddersfield were promoted to the Premier League with a win over Sheffield United. This game is often referred to as the most potentially lucrative game in world football, so he knows all about pressure. But no penalty taker is perfect.
Arfield remembers missing one for Burnley against former Dundee keeper Julian Speroni at Crystal Palace six years ago. He wonders if it was the last one he took before Saturday and whether that had weighed on his mind. “I’m prepared to take the next one,” he stressed.
It’s not why he was brought to Rangers. His other significant contribution at the weekend, a long-range piledriver, is something he wishes he could do more. Gerrard has urged his midfielders to contribute more goals from outside the box.
“It is a fair comment, particularly at Ibrox when teams sit in and play a low block,” said Arfield. “It is difficult to play pinpoint passes and play on the half-turn. You have to score goals in different ways. The ability we have as midfield players we should be scoring more goals.”
Arfield’s second of the afternoon was Rangers’ 100th of the campaign so far. They will need to make it 101 at least if they are to earn an almost imperative three points at Rugby Park in midweek. The Ibrox side currently trail Celtic by seven points and have a game in hand. Arfield is confident he and his team-mates can handle the increasing pressure after dropping five points since the winter break. Kilmarnock sounds just the sort of place a title bid can suffer a potentially fatal setback.
“Everyone signed up for this,” he said. “When you sign for this football club you know it’s not going to be plain sailing. The pressure is on you to perform and quite rightly so. If you can’t handle it then you shouldn’t be here.
“As a team, staff and club we understand people’s frustration. They’ve every right to feel like that but for us we can’t overthink it. It’s about passing the ball and scoring as many goals as possible.”
It helps having Morelos back playing and now scoring. His header on Saturday was his first since a winner over Kilmarnock on Boxing Day.
“He’s our main threat and game by game he’s getting back to where he was,” said Arfield. “It was always going to take a bit of time to get back to where he was because he was playing 20-30 games on the bounce before the break.
“Then he got sent off and there was a bit of frustration. He’s back scoring goals but his sharpness will come. You can be fit but football fitness is different to that instinct over two or three yards. He’s getting back to that though.”