In the race for Rangers player of the season a socially-distanced field is taking shape. Captain James Tavernier set the early pace with 17 goals from right-back. Connor Goldson remains a stubborn obstacle in central defence. Steven Davis? If there’s a tidier midfielder in Scotland this season it’s hard to think of one.
Come time to count the votes, however, Allan McGregor really should be somewhere on the podium. When Rangers need him most the veteran goalkeeper wins football games. In another huge step towards the title for the champions-elect the 38-year-old adopted a policy of ‘thou shalt not pass.’ If Celtic had a keeper to match him the Scottish Premiership might still have a title race.
Against a Rangers side jaded by the Europa League heroics of Antwerp on Thursday night a Dundee United team buoyed by back-to-back wins over Ross County and Livingston and chasing three-wins-in-a-row in the Scottish Premiership for the first time since March 2014, sensed an opportunity.
Joe Aribo (left) played a starring role as Rangers thrashed Dundee United to extend lead at top
Ianis Hagi set Rangers on their way by scoring in the 35th minute off an assist from Aribo
The game was as good as over just minutes later when Ryan Kent doubled Rangers’ lead
Make no mistake, Rangers were comfortable and deserved winners in the end. But for McGregor’s heroics in the opening 30 minutes, however, this could have been a rather different kind of day. Harder than it turned out, certainly, after Ianis Hagi and Ryan Kent scored late in the first half. Harder than it felt when the elegant Joe Aribo – sponsors’ man of the match – scored a glorious goal for 3-0 three minutes into the second half. Harder, certainly, than United keeper Benjamin Siegrist made it feel when he lashed a hashed clearance off the mid-riff of Alfredo Morelos and into his own net for a Keystone Cops fourth.
RANGERS (4-3-3): McGregor 8, Balogun 7, Goldson 7, Helander 6 (Simpson 66 3), Barisic 6, Aribo 8, Davis 6 (Wright 63 4) , Jack 3 (Kamara 27 5), Hagi 6 (Arfield 63 4), Morelos 6 (Defoe 66), Kent 6.
Substitutes: McLaughlin, Simpson, Wright, Stewart, Arfield, King, Defoe, Itten.
Scorers: Hagi (35), Kent (38), Aribo (49), Morelos (64)
DUNDEE UNITED (4-5-1): Siegrist 6, L Smith 6, Edwards 7, Reynolds 7, Robson 6, Butcher 6, Harkes 6 (Smith 1), Fuchs 5, Appere 6 (McNulty 67), Shankland 6, Clark 6.
Substitutes: Deniz, Sporle, Connolly, Hoti, Chalmers, Bolton, Neilson.
Booked: Butcher, Robson
Scorer: McNulty (87)
Referee: Nick Walsh
Star Man: Allan McGregor (Rangers)
The Swiss redeemed himself slightly with a fine penalty save from Borna Barisic. By then McGregor was a virtual bystander, his work was done in those early stages when he embarked on a one man war of attrition with invaders in tangerine shirts.
The stand off began after eight minutes when a one two involving Louis Appere and Liam Smith ended with Lawrence Shankland gathering on the edge of the area and driving into the area . The Scotland striker feel he should have scored. McGregor? He wasn’t having it.
Ten minutes later more composed passing gave Appere with a run on goal. Again the Rangers keeper threw himself down at the striker’s feet to smother.
Shortly after Ryan Jack added to Steven Gerrard’s growing injury woes ahead of Thursday’s second leg against Royal Antwerp by limping from the pitch Appere had another go from 20 yards. This time the forward’s shot stung the path of McGregor’s palms. There were two Dundee United buses parked outside the main door of the Bill Struth Stand before kick-off. At times it felt as if McGregor had driven one into the ground and parked it on the goalline.
The outcome of all this was predictable and vaguely familiar. By half-time Rangers were 2-0 up and it was game over.
Hagi set the ball rolling with a lovely piece of improvisation. But for injury Aribo would be another banging on the door for player of the season, the Nigerian international jinking and feinting at the edge of the area before before thumping a low left foot shot towards goal. Siegrist might have had it covered until Hagi opened up his foot and intentionally changed the direction of the ball en route to goal.
Slightly against the run of play, Rangers added insult to United injury by doubled their lead inside two minutes with a deflected goal. A Barisic cross was headed towards the edge of the area where Ryan Kent struck it first time, the ball taking a cruel break off the instep of Ryan Edwards and deceiving Siegrist again for 2-0.
Like Celtic and others the Tayside team learned a harsh lesson here. Banging loudly at the door is all well and good. Fail to prise it open and you pay a heavy price.
At Ibrox the best laid plans rarely pan out as planned. Relentless and clinical, Rangers killed the game stone dead three minutes into the second period with a stunning strike. Once again Aribo set the game alight.
Playing a one two with Morelos the former Charlton midfielder thrashed a glorious thumping left foot strike into the top corner of the net, giving Siegrist absolutely no chance whatsoever. A game which promised so much for Dundee United was now going badly wrong. Beaten 4-0 at Ibrox in September Micky Mellon’s side were staring down the barrel of a gun once more.
Aribo scored a brilliant strike to put Steven Gerrard’s men further ahead at Ibrox on Sunday
Alfredo Morelos also got in on the act, scoring Rangers’ fourth of the afternoon after the hour
Allan McGregor was superb and made several key saves before Dundee’s late consolation
If Alfredo Morelos was unfortunate to see a downward header from a Barisic cross fizz inches wide of the post, there was plenty of good luck in the slightly farcical way the Colombian celebrated his return from suspension by claiming an unintentional fourth in 64 minutes.
Defender Ryan Edwards probably through he’d dealt with any danger from the striker when he won the race towards his own goal to pass a long ball back to his keeper. Under mild pressure the Tannadice keeper leaned back and thumped a left foot clearance against the mid-riff of the striker. Morelos knew nothing about it.
Siegrist was handed a quick opportunity to make swift amends. In his last act of the match Morelos won a penalty when he was fouled by Jeando Fuchs in the area. In the absence of regular spot kick taker Tavernier, Borna Barisic scored two in Antwerp on Thursday night.
He lashed a left foot effort at goal at pretty much the same area of goal this time, Siegrist guessing right to produce a fine safe. After the howler of the fourth goal he was due one.
With four minutes remaining Dundee United claimed some scant consolation. Substitute Marc McNulty scored only the second goal by an opposition side at Ibrox with a low drive from the edge of the error after mild hesitation from Rangers debutant substitute Jack Simpson.
A reminder of Allan McGregor’s fallability did nothing to alter the final outcome.
Even without the injured duo of influential captain James Tavernier and top scorer Kemar Roofe the champions-elect found a way. After 15 wins from 15 home games, they usually do.