A DEFEAT at Rugby Park proved to be the beginning of the end for Rangers’ Premiership title aspirations last term. This 2-1 loss at the same venue now leaves those dreams hanging by a thread once again.

Having seen his side drop five points to Hearts and Aberdeen since the winter break, Steven Gerrard knew there was no margin for error here. Like last January, Rangers would take the lead – this time through Scott Arfield – but a second half collapse saw Kilmarnock come from behind to win it.

The damage done by Stephen O’Donnell’s equaliser was bad enough, but Eamonn Brophy piled on the misery for Rangers. Now ten points adrift of Celtic, Gerrard’s side are surely too far behind to prevent nine-in-a-row.

The pain was once again self-inflicted from Rangers. A match that they should have won was somehow lost as three crucial points were thrown away.

Gerrard has lamented the lack of spark about his side at times in recent weeks as Rangers have found the going tougher and toiled in the final third. That was the case for long spells against Hamilton on Sunday before they eventually ran out 4-1 winners and Gerrard had one of his goal heroes from the Scottish Cup clash to thank for breaking the deadlock here.

Once again, Arfield came to the fore in spectacular fashion. His strike was one of the few moments of quality in a pedestrian, one-paced first half of few chances and talking points.

Rangers controlled the possession but couldn’t do enough with it as the ball was shuffled from side to side. Kilmarnock were typically difficult to break down, but Gerrard would have expected more nous from his front four as Rangers took time to find their rhythm.

Alfredo Morelos saw a tame header easily held by keeper Jan Koprivec after a quarter of an hour, while Joe Aribo couldn’t hit the target after a smart first-time pass from Ianis Hagi.

At the other end, Allan McGregor was almost a spectator. Kilmarnock were dogged and determined but they posed Rangers few problems as Gerrard’s side were allowed time in their own half before being swamped the further up the field they ventured.

Dead ball situations looked like being Killie’s best chances of making the breakthrough and McGregor should have been tested by Alan Power. A low corner from Chris Burke found the midfielder in space on the edge of the box but the home crowd sat down deflated as quickly as they had risen from their seats in expectation as Power’s shot was blasted into the stand.

That perhaps summed up the lack of quality in the encounter at that stage but Arfield soon had his moment. Andy Halliday will get the assist to his credit, but this was all about the Canadian internationalist as he collected the ball and then rifled it beyond Koprivec.

The swerve seemed to deceive the keeper and Arfield sprinted towards the away end in celebration after he followed up his stunning strike against Accies with another long-range rocket. It came just in time for Rangers.

Arfield almost repeated the feat a couple of minutes later when the ball broke at the edge of the area but his strike was just wide of Koprivec’s right-hand post. If that had gone in, there would surely have been no way back for Kilmarnock.

Boss Dyer could be content with the way his side had competed. Gary Dicker was booked for barging through the back of Hagi, while Alan Power and Ryan Kent both received a card after a largely innocuous incident that John Beaton could easily have let go.

There was a bit more intent about the hosts after the restart but it was Rangers that had the clearest chances of the opening exchanges. Chris Burke did brilliantly to ensure Kent didn’t finish off a quick Gers counter-attack and Koprivec held a Morelos effort from distance either side of a handful of Killie corners.

Morelos had been largely starved of service and his desperation showed as he was needlessly booked for diving. He was lambasted by the home crowd, and his team-mates surely wouldn’t have been impressed either.

He was almost the match-winner, though. Beating Stuart Findlay to a ball from James Tavernier, he lobbed the onrushing Koprivec as the ball was sent high into the air.

When it came back down, it hit the top of the bar and bounced clear as Rangers came agonisingly close to a second goal. With the game wide open, the points were still up for grabs.

With 15 minutes left, Killie suddenly had all three in sight. Niko Hamalainen’s shot turned into a pass as he pulled it wide across goal and into the path of O’Donnell.

He found himself in the right place at the right time to knock the ball beyond McGregor and set up a frantic finale. Rangers had to find a winner and Gerrard introduced Greg Stewart and then Florian Kamberi as his side flooded forward in hope more than expectation.

Soon, they were out of time. Brophy burst away from Connor Goldson and then slotted the ball beyond McGregor as Kilmarnock completed their comeback.

It was over, it is all-but over. Rangers hadn’t just lost a game, they look like they have blown their title bid once again.