Nobody could have foresaw a few weeks ago that Rangers would be arriving for this fixture with it being suggested that the pressure was already mounting on Steven Gerrard and his players. But after Celtic’s thrashing of St Mirren on Saturday, and on the back a period of indifferent form, there was an air of nervousness as Rangers headed up the A9 to Dingwall to take on Ross County.
The next seven days are huge for Rangers.
Firstly they head to Armenia to play the second-leg of the Europa League group stage qualification tie against Alashkert. Gerrard has made meat and drink of these ties in his previous three attempts, however the inexplicable loss to Malmö has created doubt where there was once belief. Failure to qualify will put further pressure on the manager and his players going into next week’s Old Firm fixture – the first of this season.
Rangers go into Thursday night’s game with a one goal advantage, however the game did not come without a price with Michael Beale revealing prior to Sunday’s game that Ianis Hagi and Scott Wright had picked up knocks and could be out for a couple of weeks. Hagi recovered to take his place in the starting eleven – Wright, however, missed out and as things stand is unlikely to feature on Thursday night.
This announcement by Beale added further weight to feeling that Rangers preparations and start to the season have not been ideal, with players returning at different times due to international duty, with injuries and suspensions adding further headaches for manager Steven Gerrard.
“Some people have had a disrupted pre-season after coming off the Euros & Copa America”, said Beale. “There is a lot going on with the squad that is background noise really. We’re managing one or two things but that’s fine, that happens at all times of the season.”
One extra thing to manage has been added to that list after it was revealed that Nathan Paterson had been the subject to a £5m bid from Everton, with The Athletic reporting that the offer was submitted on Friday. Such a paltry amount is unlikely to force Rangers’ hand, but it highlights that potential suitors of Rangers’ top assets are aware that the loss to Malmö was an expensive one, and that they are prepared to use that as a bargaining tool.
Steven Gerrard reintroduced Leon Balogun to the starting eleven and he found himself subject to a penalty claim in the opening minutes when he handled in the box, but referee David Munro awarded free-kick to Rangers for an earlier foul.
The scare was an early reminder that Rangers needed to be at their best and they set about taking control of the match, culminating in Joe Aribo providing the opening goal after 15 minutes with a superb strike, curling the ball into the top corner from the corner of the 18 yard box. Goldson doubled that lead four minutes later, getting on the end of a James Tavernier corner to head home.
It seemed that a routine win and potential thrashing were on the cards as Rangers clocked up further chances through Hagi, Aribo and Goldson, but, as has so often been the case so far this season, just when Rangers looked to be on safe ground they contrived to find a way to make hard work of things.
Harry Clarke’s goal with five minute left of the first-half was Ross County's first of this season and it reopened a contest which had appeared to be over. Clarke reacted quickest in the box after Allan McGregor made a fine initial save from Jordan White’s effort to hit the rebound home.
Nine minutes into the second-half Alfredo Morelos put further distance between the sides again with a left foot finish. But yet again Rangers could not finish the job, dragging themselves back into a fight with thirteen minutes to go when Jordan White scored from the spot after Calvin Bassey had handled in the box.
The prospect for a potentially uncomfortable last few minutes didn’t last long, and was put to rest when Scott Arfield slotted home in the closing stages after coming on for Hagi on the 78 minute.
With such a big week looming there were many positive signs hinting that Rangers are returning to something resembling the standards they know they can hit, but the slack moments in defence continue to be a cause for concern.
"That's the way I want my teams to play, organised and hard to play against” said manager Steven Gerrard after the game.
"We want to be as relentless and ruthless in the box as we can be. That is the way Rangers teams should look. It was much more like us, both in and out of possession.
"I'm a lot happier today. As you can see quite clearly what we are trying to do. We are trying to be more organised at times and we are still trying to fine-tune that.
"We are still waiting to have a full squad and be fully settled so we will get better.”
RANGERS: McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Balogun, Bassey, Aribo, Davis, Kamara, Hagi, Kent, Morelos.
SUBS: Lundstram, Arfield, Roofe, McCrorie, Helander, Itten, Patterson.
ROSS COUNTY: Laidlaw, Randall, Cancola, Spittal, Callachan, Iacovitti, Cook (Samuel, 90), Clarke, Tillson, Paton, White.
SUBS: Hungbo, Maynard-Brewer, Samuel, Shaw, Robertson, Watson, Donaldson.
REFEREE: David Munro
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