AFTER the respite of a Scottish Cup tie at Ibrox in which they eased their way into the quarter-finals, Rangers faced another exacting away league fixture and prevailed with another hard-earned victory.
The habit of doing enough to overcome opponents has become ingrained in Ally McCoist's side. This was not a dominant performance, but, as Ayr United manager Mark Roberts acknowledged, they have become adept at "grinding" teams down.
This was a satisfactory occasion for the league leaders, although a small pocket of away fans briefly indulged in an old, unwelcome song early in the game, only for the majority to refuse to respond. The team relied on their determination, but also some adept saves by Cammy Bell, who kept Ayr at bay on three occasions while the score was 0-0.
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"That's as good a performance as you'll see from any goalkeeper in the country," McCoist said. "He's been top class. Even speaking to Andy [Goram, Ayr's goalkeeper coach] after the game, he thought he was very good and that's praise indeed."
The Rangers manager could be comforted by his team's ability to fashion a victory, but the bigger picture is always present. If this was a game that showed that his side have improved on last season, they are still "miles away" from competing in the top flight.
Nonetheless, McCoist also insisted on clarifying comments he made last week that it would take £30 million to rebuild Rangers to that level. "I'd like to put the record straight, not at any time did I say that £30m would be required to get Rangers back to the top," he insisted. "What I said was that we had maybe lost £30m worth of talent."
Rangers were without their first-choice centre-back pairing of Lee McCulloch and Bilel Mohsni through suspension, while Michael Moffat was missing for the home side while serving a ban for breaching betting rules.
The visitors had to improvise, with Seb Faure moving into the centre of defence alongside Emilson Cribari, who last started a game in August last year and who was making only his fourth appearance of the campaign. There was logic to the decision-making, though, since it was inevitable that Kevin Kyle would be a handful - physically, aggressively and determinedly -against his former side.
Corner kicks always seemed a cause for anxiety among the visitors, but it was in open play that Ayr were occasionally threatening. Craig Malcolm was a dangerous presence, and one half-volley brought an alert stop from Bell, while a rasping effort later in the first-half prompted an excellent diving save.
The game's scrappiness was limiting in terms of style, but it also allowed an element of unpredictability which made it an intriguing encounter.
It was flaws that caught the attention. Rangers should have cleared a corner, but Kyle's head flick sent the ball to Michael Donald, only for Bell to save from close range. Rangers immediately broke upfield, with Nicky Law finding Fraser Aird on the edge of the Ayr United penalty area.
The winger's shot bounced off the face of the crossbar, then Law lashed the rebound over from 10 yards. It was typical of the game's nature that David Templeton's whipped cross into the six-yard box was in vain, since neither Jon Daly nor Aird could connect.
The sense of exasperation was still of worth to Rangers, though. The half-time team talk would have centred on their failure to be ruthless, and there was an immediate response.
Only 29 seconds after the interval, Aird purposefully made for the byeline before drilling a cross with such intent that the ball deflected off the onrushing Law and into the net. "We had to improve in the second half," McCoist said. "The conditions didn't help in terms of getting the ball down and passing it, but we were miles better in the second half and could have won it by more."
The second goal came when Lee Wallace curled a cross from deep into the penalty area and Daly peeled away from his marker before sending a firm header beyond David Hutton.
"We took the game to Rangers, we had a game plan that was working great," Roberts said. "At half-time, we were in a position where we just needed to concentrate and not do anything daft, but there was a silly mistake in the centre and Rangers went up the park and scored. It was hard to come back."