Rangers 3 - 1 Dundee United - Intrigue, controversy and a spectacular Novo goal, then seven and a half minutes of calculated rage

AS VERBALS go, Craig Levein executed Mike McCurry yesterday, absolutely mowed the referee down for the decisions he made in this riotous game.

Levein's words, seven a half minutes of them, were delivered to a hushed audience. There was no ranting or raving, no emotion and an absence of histrionics, which merely served to make his message all the more powerful.

He buried McCurry for refusing to give Dundee United the penalty that was their due after 55 minutes, for not sending off Davie Weir in the same incident, for chalking off a goal that Mr Magoo himself would have seen was perfectly legitimate after 72 minutes and for not sending off Daniel Cousin and Kirk Broadfoot for sticking the head into Lee Wilkie and punching Noel Hunt respectively. Levein said McCurry deliberately sided with Rangers, that there was no way he was going to allow the Ibrox team to be beaten by the likes of United. "Imagine if this was the other way around," he said. "Mike McCurry would never referee another game."

It was jaw-dropping stuff, which merely continued the theme of the day, for it was a game of unending fascination. Walter Smith was non-plussed by all the fuss. He noted that nobody mentioned the two failed penalty claims his own team had on Wednesday night against Motherwell and so he wasn't getting excited about calls that went his way here. He was just delighted with the points.

This was the strangest of matches. Rangers won, sure. Comfortably on the face of it. If you're told that they scored their first goal, via Nacho Novo, after only seven minutes and had gone two clear before half-time, following a thunderbolt from distance from the impressive Spaniard, you'd write this one off as a straightforward three points. But this was a game that had all sorts of intrigue.

United took about 30 seconds to register their intent, Hunt sliding in on Broadfoot and forcing a withering stare out of the defender.

But Novo calmed Rangers' nerves with his headed goal. He won the free-kick in the first instance when fouled by Mark Kerr and then eluded the big units in the United defence to nod home from Kevin Thomson's precise delivery. Thomson later went off with an ankle injury, but all the signs are that he will be fit for Wednesday.

Rangers only had to wait another 10 minutes to double their advantage when a Cousin back-header worked the ball to Novo, seemingly in an impossible shooting position on the left edge of the United penalty area. With his marker, Mihael Kovacevic, standing off him, Novo whipped a left-foot shot high into the United net. A magical strike.

The Rangers dominance began to wane in the dying minutes of the first half, though. Firstly, Weir had to hoof a David Robertson shot off his own line after Alexander made a hash of a clearance and then the goalkeeper was hard-pressed to beat away a Mark De Vries effort.

The incidents started piling up and they all involved the birthday boy Weir, 38 yesterday. Hunt got across the defender in the box and was brought down, but nothing was given. One hell of a birthday present, that. Levein's blood started to boil on the touchline. He felt aggrieved but he would also have felt relieved, for had first Novo and then Christian Dailly made the most of fine chances then the game would have been over.

But then Danny Swanson's shot took a deflection off Weir and flew past Neil Alexander, only McCurry thought it hit Robertson (standing nearby Weir in an offside position) and he ruled it out. Cue Levein's head exploding.

Soon after, Cousin squared up to Wilkie and rancour was piled on top of rancour. With 14 minutes left, De Vries stole a yard on Sasa Papac and headed in a Danny Grainger cross and suddenly the anxiety levels shot up inside Ibrox.

But Rangers showed great composure from there and, in injury time, Barry Ferguson slid a cross into the penalty area for Jean-Claude Darcheville to turn in. One more down, three more to go for the title.