James Tavernier gets the job done for Rangers as they have to grind it out against Kilmarnock
This was a day when Rangers would have settled for any kind of victory. So there could be no complaints from Steven Gerrard at the ultimately ugly manner in which they had to ensure they left Rugby Park with the precious result which moves them nine points clear of Celtic in the title race.
James Tavernier’s 10th goal of the season, another emphatically finished penalty kick, proved sufficient for Rangers to succeed at a venue which has been a graveyard for their aspirations of winning the league in the previous two campaigns. It came during the most potent spell of the afternoon for the Ibrox men.
The match became more problematic for them the longer it progressed and while they were not exactly hanging on grimly at the end, they had to repel a spirited effort from Kilmarnock which might easily have salvaged a point for Alex Dyer’s team.
Playing the rotation game
Altering almost half of his starting line-up is the new normal for Gerrard as he looks to guide his squad through the Thursday-Sunday-Thursday schedule which runs until December as they meet their commitments in the Premiership and Europa League.
There were five changes again for this assignment. Filip Helander replaced Leon Balogun in central defence, while Ryan Jack and Joe Aribo came into the midfield trio for Steven Davis and Glen Kamara.
It was no surprise that Alfredo Morelos, after his midweek match winning contribution against Lech Poznan, replaced Kemar Roofe in the central striking role. But the fifth change, with Cedric Itten preferred to Ianis Hagi, was something of a curve ball from Gerrard.
Itten’s chance to stake his claim
Like his fellow summer striking recruit Roofe, Swiss international Itten has yet to find any sustained momentum as a Rangers player.
This was only a third starting appearance for the £2.7 million signing from St Gallen and his first since the Europa League qualifier against Lincoln Red Imps in Gibraltar back on September 17. His only previous Premiership start was in the 2-0 home victory over Kilmarnock in August.
Operating on the right side of Rangers’ attacking trident, Itten showed some clever touches and intelligent link-up play. He passed up a couple of decent opportunities to add to the two goals he scored against Motherwell last month but it was a display which showcased his considerable potential.
Statement of intent
At a venue which has caused them so much grief in the past, Rangers were clearly determined to try and impose themselves on Kilmarnock from the start.
It was an especially dominant first 30 minutes from the visitors with Tavernier’s breakthrough the very least they deserved for the extent to which they controlled possession and kept Kilmarnock hemmed in around the edge of their own penalty area.
Ryan Kent saw a shot blocked after good work from Itten on the right in the sixth minute before Aribo fired an effort just over from around 20 yards after a Tavernier cross wasn’t properly cleared.
There could be no debate about the penalty award which gave Rangers their 19th minute lead. It was the easiest of decisions for referee Andrew Dallas as Kilmarnock defender Ross Millen blatantly blocked Connor Goldson’s header from a Borna Barisic free-kick with his right hand.
Tavernier simply doesn’t look like missing from the spot in his current form and although Killie goalkeeper Danny Rogers guessed correctly in diving to his right, he was still well beaten by the Rangers captain’s precise and powerful conversion into the corner.
The intensity of Rangers’ play seemed to have taken Kilmarnock aback. The normally combative Gary Dicker was robbed of possession by Scott Arfield who blazed a shot over, then Rangers threatened again when Aribo - displaying some delightful footwork throughout the contest - set up Itten who couldn’t squeeze his effort on target from a tight angle.
The action became scrappier as half-time approached and while Rangers continued to look the more dangerous side, with Goldson glancing a header wide and Aribo seeing a shot deflected just off target, there was less fluency in their work.
Kilmarnock finally began to ask a few questions of the Rangers defence. A slip from Helander allowed Rory McKenzie to break into the penalty area, his cutback cleared by Goldson.
Rangers looked to regain some of the impetus they had lost as they raised the tempo again at the start of the second half.
Kent burst into life with a couple of darting runs down the left which culminated in attempts from Arfield and Morelos being blocked.
But Kilmarnock were now playing with more purpose and belief themselves and Alan Power reminded Rangers of how finely the match was still balanced when he burst into the box and sliced a shot into the arms of McGregor.
Kent might have done better than drill a shot straight at Rogers before the Killie ‘keeper got down well at his near post to smother an Itten cross ahead of the lurking Morelos.
The game was now more stretched than Rangers would have liked and Gerrard replaced Aribo with Steven Davis in a bid to tighten things up in midfield.
Kilmarnock threatened to claim an equaliser again when Rory McKenzie sent a low shot skidding narrowly wide of McGregor’s left hand post.
Rangers craved the comfort of a second goal and a more forceful touch from Itten might have delivered it the 69th minute when he could only flick a clever lofted pass from Davis straight into the midriff of Rogers.
It became a nervous finale to the contest for Rangers. McGregor had to make a smart save to keep out a powerfully struck free-kick from Killie substitute Eamonn Brophy.
Gerrard withdrew Morelos, sending on Balogun to reinforce what had become a rearguard action for his team in the closing minutes.
Kilmarnock: Rogers, Millen, Broadfoot, Findlay, Waters; Power, Dicker; Burke (Pinnock 78), Tshibola (Mulumbu 78), McKenzie; Kabamba (Brophy 74).
Rangers: McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Helander, Barisic; Arfield, Jack, Aribo (Davis 66); Itten, Morelos (Balogun 86), Kent.
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