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Arbroath 1 Rangers 2: Second string nearly comes unravelled in final warm-up

THIS Sunday's Ramsdens Cup final against Raith Rovers will be an interesting yardstick in measuring just where Rangers are at the moment.

The less-than-impressive Arnold Peralta, left, battles for the ball with Arbroath's Johnny Lindsay. Picture: SNS
The less-than-impressive Arnold Peralta, left, battles for the ball with Arbroath's Johnny Lindsay. Picture: SNS

Those versed in the murky world of gambling are already making noises about remortgaging property and trading in Aunt Esme's old engagement ring in preparation for a serious plunge on Dundee United should they be anything approaching a reasonable price for their upcoming visit to Ibrox in the last four of the William Hill Scottish Cup.

Certainly, watching the likes of Arbroath's busy forward Bobby Linn cause Ally McCoist's side more than a few headaches at the weekend does make you wonder what the likes of Nadir Ciftci, Ryan Gauld and others may be capable of doing on their day.

The Easter Road encounter with Rovers, only just keeping their heads above water in the Championship, will offer further pointers, but Rangers' on-field struggles are almost as perplexing as the management of the club's finances in the boardroom.

They possess experienced players with proven track records and have won the League 1 championship by miles, of course, but a large proportion of the matches have made for, to put it in the most polite way possible, difficult viewing.

McCoist fielded something approaching his second-string XI at Gayfield and the exercise must surely have helped crystallise opinions on the likes of Arnold Peralta and Kyle Hutton, outshone in midfield by the home side's 39-year-old player-manager Paul Sheerin. Quite how McCoist's team managed to escape with their 100% away record in the league intact is harder to figure.

Jon Daly, now a doubt for the cup double-header after hobbling off with a hamstring problem near the end, scored against the run of play on 19 minutes with a header from a Fraser Aird corner.

It might have been much more straightforward had a 30-yard thunderbolt from Aird hit the net rather than the underside of the crossbar and there was another lucky escape for Arbroath when Michael Travis' attempted clearance at the start of the second period rebounded off the woodwork.

However, an inexplicable error from Sebastien Faure, heading the ball straight to Paul McManus around 35 yards from his own goal and allowing him to slip it past Cammy Bell, looked like giving Abroath their first draw against Rangers since 1938 until Aird got in the way of a Daly effort from a Calum Gallagher cross four minutes from time. He felt the ball hit off his body and embarked upon a celebration routine tinged more with embarrassment than ecstasy after seeing it cross the line.

Even then, the visitors almost conceded an equaliser five minutes into stoppage-time. Alex Keddie must have woken up in a cold sweat overnight, seeking explanations from somewhere on high of how on earth he managed to put the ball over the bar from a yard or so out after moving onto a Kevin Nicoll knockdown.

That is part of the problem with Rangers. They can switch off. They do find it difficult to strangle the life out of matches, even against part-time opponents. Something, however, tells you they must be capable of more as a collective. Are they being dragged down to the level of those they are up against? Is the lack of competition leading to complacency?

Two years spent trawling round some of football's forgotten lands would sap the strength of Hannibal, so a couple of matches against better teams from higher divisions may well inspire McCoist's players to summon up the kind of form that has really only been seen in flashes.

Arbroath's scorer McManus, though, is one man who would not bet on it. He had a couple of spells at Raith and believes Kirkcaldy's finest have a golden opportunity to bring a serious dose of realism to the party at Ibrox following their recent, surprisingly exuberant title celebrations.

"It'll be close," said McManus. "The last couple of weeks, Rangers have been poor. That isn't just down to them. Other teams are putting up a fight, but Rangers will struggle.

"The only thing that will favour Rangers is the crowd they will get behind them. They have really good players, but they were hanging on against us at the end on Saturday.

"The goal they got? Same old Rangers. A ricochet off one of their players and the ball goes in the back of the net. When things aren't going for them, they get a bit of luck and not just off the linesman and the referee."

That is not to suggest McManus does not believe the officials don't give Rangers their fair share of assistance too. He has accused McCoist's men of going to ground far too easily when subjected to the kind of meaty challenges that give this level of football a certain charm and believes referees have been far too quick to protect them. "I was arguing with Lee McCulloch on the park because I felt he went down too easy," said McManus. "I've played in this league a long time and it's a battle. Teams get stuck in and Rangers aren't used to that. They like getting time on the ball, but we played them off the park at Ibrox and got nothing.

"They got a penalty in the last five minutes through Jon Daly, who I felt went down easy then. We even saw it on Saturday with certain decisions down the side, when the flag never went up. We worked hard and got nothing. It's typical Rangers."

Let us gloss over the fact visiting goalkeeper Bell thought McManus was offside for that most bizarre of goals in the second half. He concedes the side will have to play better as they chase three trophies and insists, perhaps surprisingly, that winning the Ramsdens Cup will mean as much to him as lifting the League Cup with Kilmarnock two years ago.

"It definitely will," he enthused. "This is a cup final for the club I love. We'll need to raise our game."

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