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Rangers relieved as James Tavernier penalty earns lacklustre win over Dundee United

COVID issues didn’t postpone it. The fog didn’t cancel it. In the end, Dundee United couldn’t halt Rangers either.

Eight games have now returned seven victories for Giovanni van Bronckhorst. In many aspects, this one is probably the least satisfying of the lot.

The rewards – and a seven point lead in the Premiership title race – were all that really mattered, however. The momentum that is being built wasn’t interrupted.

James Tavernier’s second half penalty was all that separated the sides on an afternoon that should have been so much more straightforward for the champions. Their own failings will be Van Bronckhorst’s priority in terms of the analysis, but credit must also be given to their visitors.

A glance at the form books and the team lines all pointed to this being a rampant victory for the league leaders. As it turned out, it was anything but as they toiled against a depleted United.

The build-up to the trip to Ibrox wasn’t easy for Tam Courts as he counted the cost of a Covid outbreak that raised fears over whether this match would go ahead at all.

Courts admitted pre-match that it had been an ‘achievement’ to be able to field a team at Ibrox given the virus issues that have swept through the Tannadice camp this week.

He must have sent his side out with some trepidation. He would – at both the break and at full-time – welcome them back into the away dressing room with pride at their efforts. Had a late Darren Watson header snuck under the bar rather than clipping it, they would have earned a point to add to their win at Tannadice earlier in the campaign.

Courts was without – either through injury or illness – the likes of Benjamin Siegrist, Kieran Freeman, Ian Harkes and Jeandro Fuchs for the trip to Ibrox. From adversity, he would offer opportunity, though.

This was a chance for some as Trevor Carson and Adrian Sporle started, while youngsters Archie Meekison and Craig Moore – making his debut aged just 16 – had the platform to make a name for themselves. The odds were against them, but United weren’t fazed at a freezing Ibrox.

The fog that enveloped the ground brought with it a sense of lethargy. From the off, it was clear that Rangers weren’t at it.

The opening weeks of his reign have been almost all positive. There has been a feeling of rejuvenation about the champions in an attacking sense and gears have been moved through with relative ease.

This, though, was arguably their worst 90 minutes under Van Bronckhorst. It was hard to fathom where it had come from, and inexcusable given what was at stake.

Van Bronckhorst had made his own switches as Nathan Patterson replaced Borna Barisic as he continues to recover from illness, while John Lundstram took over from Joe Aribo in midfield. Given his suspension status – with a booking here ruling him out of the Old Firm clash in a fortnight – it was a risk that Van Bronckhorst couldn’t afford to take from the start.

Aribo has been Rangers’ most influential presence in recent weeks, but his absence shouldn’t have been as noticeable as it was. Without him, the champions were slow and ponderous and carried little threat.

Ianis Hagi endured a wretched first half on the right. Whatever he tried, nothing came off as passes and flicks went astray with alarming regularity and round of laughter that accompanied his announcement as Man of the Match summed up his afternoon.

Ryan Kent was better on the other flank but couldn’t carve United open, while Alfredo Morelos only had one real opening, which he skewed wide from the edge of the area, during a frustrating half.

It was one that had started with United threatening. Allan McGregor’s stop from a Nicky Clark strike was straightforward enough, but it was a sign that the visitors had attacking intentions and were not here just to soak up the pressure.

In truth, Rangers wouldn’t apply enough of it. Tavernier couldn’t beat stand-in keeper Carson, while Glen Kamara didn’t even test him with a tame strike from distance.

With just seconds left of the half, Morelos hit the target but couldn’t find the net. From a Patterson cross, his header was tipped over as Carson saved smartly to ensure parity at the interval.

It wasn’t going to plan for Rangers. Van Bronckhorst identified that, too, and made an attempt to rectify it as Scott Wright replaced Lundstram and added some much-needed pace to the Ibrox attack.

The benefits of the winger’s direct style were evident early on. One burst down the right was a statement of Wright’s intent, while a second saw him set up Morelos before the Colombian blazed over from inside the area.

It was Van Bronckhorst’s next change that was most indicative, however. After 64 minutes, Aribo took over from Scott Arfield and received a rapturous welcome from Ibrox.

Rangers had continued to be devoid of ideas and Carson, who saw Kent aim a weak strike wide of target, was rarely worried by what little the champions had offered. He would, though, save well from Wright after he burst into the area.

The introduction of Aribo was a case of needs must for Rangers. It was also a failure on the part of those that Van Bronckhorst had trusted to get the job done without his most creative influence.

Time was against Rangers. A lengthy delay as Craig Moore received treatment and was then stretchered off didn’t help their cause but they were soon given a helping hand.

A Tavernier cross struck Scott McMann and referee Alan Muir pointed to the spot. From 12 yards, the captain made no mistake.

Carson would dive the right way, but he had no chance of stopping Tavernier’s clinical, powerful penalty. Eventually, Ibrox found its voice in celebration just as the moans and groans had started to dominate the decibel levels.

The offside flag brought a premature end to the next roar after Morelos had converted at the front post. The goal had given Rangers a lift, though, and there was more purpose about them as they went in search of the second to make sure of victory.

It wouldn’t come before the final whistle. It was just another factor to add to the list of frustrations on an unsatisfying afternoon for the champions.

For the first time, Van Bronckhorst now has a free midweek and a bit of time between matches. Given what he witnessed here, he has plenty to think about before Boxing Day.

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