With Celtic’s scheduled match against Inverness Caledonian Thistle postponed yesterday morning due to a waterlogged pitch, the path was clear for their Glasgow rivals to edge ahead in the title race. A victory over Dundee United would have put Rangers a point clear – having played the same number of games as the Parkhead club for the first time since December.
However, despite twice holding the lead in an enormously entertaining and frequently contentious 90 minutes of football, Walter Smith’s side failed to capitalise on that chance.
As a consequence, they now trail Neil Lennon’s team by two points with 10 games remaining in what is proving to be a fascinating 2010/11 campaign.
What may be more painful for Rangers than any statistic, though, is that by slumping to their first defeat to United at Ibrox in six years in such a pivotal match, they displayed an alarming lack of the mental resolve required to succeed in such a tight title run-in.
Coming after another day when firm news of the outcome of Craig Whyte’s proposed £27 million takeover of the club failed to materialise, this was a particularly arduous afternoon for the Ibrox club’s long-suffering fans. Manager Smith, however, rejected suggestions the situation off the field had distracted his players from the task in hand.
“We have had to deal with the same sort of headlines as we have had this week for the last few years,” he said. “It is not an issue.”
Smith added: “We lost goals after getting in front on two occasions. We did not have the toughness to handle the situation. That was disappointing.”
With Kyle Bartley, Madjid Bougherra, Kirk Broadfoot and Lee McCulloch all out injured, Steven Whittaker was moved back to centre-half alongside Davie Weir. More used to playing in midfield or at full-back, the Scotland internationalist’s ability to cope in such an key position was a concern for the home support prior to the match.
There was no need for them to worry. The versatile player quickly displayed an aptitude for the role and was not to blame for a costly defeat. The home side’s loss had much more to do with the fact United, smarting from a surprise 3-0 defeat to Motherwell in their Scottish Cup quarter-final replay at Fir Park on Wednesday night, played with real purpose.
Johnny Russell on the left wing, in particular, proved difficult to contain. If he had shown greater composure in front of goal the visitors could have edged ahead in the early stages.
Instead, it was who Rangers went in front after 19 minutes. Nikica Jelavic, playing in a two-man front line alongside El-Hadji Diouf, was brought down by Barry Douglas. Referee Steve Conroy awarded a free-kick just outside the United area, Diouf picked out Jelavic unmarked and the striker headed beyond Dusan Pernis.
United came back strongly, though, and their equaliser soon before the interval came at exactly the wrong time for Rangers, stunning Ibrox into silence. Danny Swanson supplied David Robertson and the midfielder did well to curl a shot over Allan McGregor and into the left corner. Seven minutes after the restart, however, Rangers restored their lead through a well-taken goal from Steven Naismith. Diouf curled a corner into the United box and Maurice Edu rose to divert the ball into the path of Naismith, who volleyed into roof of the net with the outside of his right foot.
Despite that setback, United always looked capable of getting back on level terms and held their own throughout. Indeed, they had come into the match as one of the form teams in the country, a fact underlined last week when Peter Houston, David Goodwillie – whose part in proceedings was to be decisive – and Russell were the recipients of the Manager, Player and Young Player of the Month awards respectively for March.
Swanson signalled the visitors’ intent when he shot narrowly wide in 56 minutes, and Smith and his assistant Ally McCoist then became agitated with a couple of bad decisions, highlighting the growing tension surrounding the game.
The Rangers management team’s mood darkened considerably when Russell met a magnificent Paul Dixon cross in 78 minutes and powered a stunning header into the top-left corner.
Worse was to come for the champions after Whittaker’s header struck the struck the crossbar late on. Immediately, Prince Bauben sent Goodwillie clean through on their goal. Without any cover, McGregor was helpless to prevent the striker slotting home after a neat shimmy.
Another disappointing day