Jermain Defoe claims 300th club career goal as Rangers move six points clear at top of Premiership
Rangers rounded off as satisfying a week as they have yet enjoyed under Steven Gerrard’s management as goals from Joe Aribo and Jermain Defoe secured a solid, if unspectacular, victory over Livingston at Ibrox.
It was the kind of routine win upon which successful title challenges are built.
Rangers took full advantage of Celtic’s slip at Pittodrie earlier in the day and are now six points clear of the defending champions, having played one game more.
It was a third consecutive 2-0 victory for Gerrard’s team and while not as memorable as their Old Firm triumph at Celtic Park the previous weekend or the Europa League success against Standard Liege on Thursday night, it was no less significant to their hopes of ultimate success this season.
Strength in depth
Gerrard had intimated he would ‘freshen up’ his side in the aftermath of their gruelling efforts in Belgium and the five changes he made to his starting line-up illustrated the vastly improved resources he has at his disposal this season.
Filip Helander returned in central defence at the expense of Leon Balogun, while Calvin Bassey replaced Borna Barisic at left-back. Steven Davis and Aribo returned in midfield, with Glen Kamara and Scott Arfield dropping to the bench, while Defoe replaced Alfredo Morelos as the focal point in attack.
Lending a hand
Ianis Hagi continues to be the king of assists for Rangers. While the technically gifted midfielder had a slow-burning start to the campaign, he has been a highly productive member of Gerrard’s side in recent weeks.
His pass for Aribo’s opener was his eighth assist of the season and his seventh in his last six appearances.
Hagi’s ball retention and ability to draw fouls from opposition players also make a valuable contribution to Rangers dictating the tempo of matches.
Still got it at 38
Just as the last thing a heavyweight boxer loses is his punching power, so a top quality striker such as Defoe retains his instinctive ability in front of goal.
The veteran former England man, who celebrated his 38th birthday earlier this month, suffered a blow when Gerrard omitted him from Rangers’ squad for the Europa League group stage.
But Defoe’s exceptional goal against Livingston, a fitting way to reach the landmark of 300 in club football, proved he still has plenty to offer Rangers as they pursue success on all fronts this season.
With Alfredo Morelos experiencing something of a drought in recent weeks, Gerrard is fortunate to have a marksman of Defoe’s standard at his disposal.
Aribo back in business
Aribo, making his first starting appearance since August, looked eager to make up for lost time as he stepped up his return from injury.
Even before he gave Rangers their early lead, the Nigerian international was a lively and threatening presence. It needed a piece of timely defending from Ciaron Brown to prevent him capitalising on a precise through ball from Steven Davis which had found him inside the penalty area in the seventh minute.
But Aribo had all the time and space he wanted when he opened the scoring two minutes later. The goal was a defensive calamity for Livingston and, more specifically, Efe Ambrose.
The former Celtic and Hibs centre half was caught dallying in possession by Ryan Kent. Rangers pounced eagerly on the error and Hagi picked out Defoe on the left of the penalty area. The striker’s shot was well saved by Livingston goalkeeper Max Stryjek, in the side as the on-loan Robby McCrorie was unable to face his parent club.
The ball broke back to Hagi and the Romanian playmaker slid it low across the face of the six yard box to provide Aribo with a straightforward finish.
If that was simple, Rangers’ second goal in the 16th minute was simply sublime. There was much to admire in the ball over the top from James Tavernier which created the opportunity, dropping precisely into the path of Defoe as he raced into the penalty area. But the quality of the finish was quite exceptional, the striker not breaking stride as he guided a first time shot low into the corner of the net.
Rangers appeared primed for a rout but Livingston are nothing if not resilient. They duly rallied and should have pulled a goal back in the 22nd minute.
Julien Serrano’s low cross from the left found the home defence on their heels and the ball deflected off Connor Goldson onto Allan McGregor’s post. With the Rangers goalkeeper on the ground, it looked like an easy opportunity for Jay Emmanuel-Thomas. But the striker was too slow to react, allowing McGregor to gratefully gather the ball.
For the rest of the first half, Rangers only sporadically put together the kind of fluid football which has proved so profitable for them this season.
Bassey, impressing again after his eye-catching contribution as a substitute for Barisic in Liege, showed great physicality and awareness to snuff out an opening for Livingston at the start of the second half. He made up several yards to halt a dangerous run by Josh Mullin who had replaced Ambrose at half-time.
Rangers were soon dominating possession again as they pursued a third goal and it almost came Tavernier’s way when he was narrowly unable to get on the end of a fine cross from Kent.
The hosts struggled to find any sustained attacking rhythm, however, and Livingston threatened to regain a foothold in the contest. Scott Pittman should have done better than head wide from close range, then McGregor had to be alert to cut out a cross from the lively Mullin. Rangers saw out the victory in comfort after that and only a fine save from Stryjek denied substitute Jordan Jones from adding gloss to the scoreline in stoppage time.
Rangers: McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Helander, Bassey; Jack, Davis, Aribo (Arfield 75); Hagi (Jones 84), Defoe (Roofe 64), Kent (Itten 75).
Livingston: Stryjek, Devlin, Ambrose (Mullin 46), Guthrie, Brown; Serrano, Holt, Bartley, Sibbald (Forrest 67), Pittman; Emmanuel-Thomas (Poplatnik 85).
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