With Sunday’s main event taking place at Hampden Park in the shape of the Betfred Cup Final, Rangers had the opportunity to go top of the Premiership if they could win at Tynecastle against the early surprise package, Hearts.
The Gers were unbeaten in their last six against the Jambos, and they were looking to make it seven.
Craig Levein made five changes following Hearts’ disappointing loss to St Mirren in Paisley. Most notably in defence with one centre back, the club captain, coming back from injury to replace another newly-injured. Jimmy Dunne, out for six weeks, and Clevid Dikamona dropped out for Christophe Berra and Marcus Godinho, Michael Smith therefore shifting over to centre back.
Demi Mitchell replaced Ben Garuccio at left back. Callumn Morrison made way for Oliver Bozanic with Harry Cochrane also coming in for Craig Wighton as Hearts went 4-5-1.
Steven Gerrard made four changes following Rangers’ stalemate with Villarreal in Govan in midweek. Gareth McAuley, Andy Halliday, Ovie Ejaria and Eros Grezda all came into the side, replacing Joe Worrall, Jon Flanagan, Ryan Jack and Glenn Middleton respectively.
Best in the business?
After Hearts opted to take a short corner, their first opportunity came. Sean Clare quickly fed Oliver Bozanic, looking to centre for Arnaud Djoum. Ovie Ejaria cleared but only as far as Michael Smith who controlled with his right foot, half volleyed with his left and looked again for the Cameroonian.
Djoum sent a looping header goalward and it appeared to be dipping under the crossbar but he was denied by a fantastic save from Allan McGregor. The Rangers shotstopper proving why he’s one of, if not, the best goalkeeper in the league.
Rangers cleared the resulting corner and as Demi Mitchell looked to be too smart and evade Daniel Candeias as opposed to keeping possession, he was robbed by the winger who advanced a couple steps before sending a long diagonal ball in search of Alfredo Morelos.
The Colombian opted to volley with his right foot but got his feet in a tangle and didn’t trouble Bobby Zlamal as the ball trickled behind following Michael Smith’s deflection. An enthralling start between these two, same as the 3-1 reverse Rangers victory at Ibrox back in October.
Hosts Hearts ahead
It was proving end-to-end stuff and as several Hearts players looked to work an opening, it came following Oliver Bozanic and Steven MacLean working a one-two following the Australian’s interception.
He fed out to the overlapping Marcus Godinho, who looked to centre with a great cross right into the danger area and as the ball ricocheted off Gareth McAuley, the ball ended up in the back of the net past Allan McGregor, the helpless goalkeeper. Hearts’ first goal in over eight and a half hours and it wasn’t even through one of their own players. Not that they’d have cared, mind you.
Marcus Godinho, so effective at the attacking end, lost Eros Grezda at the back post and as James Tavernier sent a long diagonal over, the Albanian got it under control before attempting to sneak a left footed effort past Bobby Zlamal at his near post. The keeper saved and the Canadian turned behind for a Rangers corner.
Making set pieces count
From the resulting corner, Tavernier played it short and found Andy Halliday. The stand-in left back crossed and as Bobby Zlamal came out to punch clear, Ovie Ejaria sent a looping header over the goalkeeper and heading for the equaliser.
A goalline clearance from Arnaud Djoum would prevent the Liverpool loanee from grabbing just that. Superb clearance from the Jambos number 10 to deny Rangers number 10. However, the visitors would have yet another corner.
Tavernier would take once more, Alfredo Morelos flicked on and Connor Goldson kneed towards goal. It was saved by Zlamal but deflected off the centre back’s other knee and this time it proved enough to beat the Czech, Rangers back on level terms thanks to the defender’s first goal since August.
James Tavernier would flash a free kick just wide, sending his effort to Zlamal’s right, many Rangers fans thinking it had nestled into the far corner. However, the Gers’ second top goalscorer would attempt to provide for their top goalscorer.
And would successfully do so. Alfredo Morelos, standing in an offside position along with two teammates, would guide a sweet right footed volley into Zlamal’s right hand corner. No chance for the goalkeeper whatsoever as the visitors controversially went ahead. His second against the Jambos in as many games.
It’s also, coincidentally, Morelos’ seventh goal in as many games. El Bufalo becoming just the fifth player this millennium to score in seven straight top tier matches. This is an impressive feat when you consider he’s one away from equalling last campaign’s tally. 17 for the season already.
Rangers looked to counter from a poor Sean Clare free kick in the second half. Candeias fed out wide towards Coulibaly who shifted it onto Ejaria up ahead of him. His right footed cross was met back post by the sliding Alfredo Morelos, who couldn’t convert from close range.
The next chance could’ve sealed the game for Rangers. Instead it ended up set up a nervy finale as they were reduced to ten men. Daniel Candeias tested Zlamal with a low drive which the keeper palmed away to his right.
Alfredo Morelos then sent the rebound goalwards. And, as Zlamal stopped on the line, Scott Arfield slid in two-footed on the goalkeepe after he had gathered and was shown a straight red card. Arfield was lucky not to have caused a serious head injury on the goalkeeper.
Rangers weren’t bothered by going down to ten. Indeed, they would have the ball in the net once more thanks to Morelos. Tavernier’s effort was blocked with the recound falling to Ejaria.
Zlamal’s save with his legs rebounded to the centre forward who tapped home. He was, however, unfortunately in an offside position whilst doing so and the goal didn’t count.
Craig Levein will no doubt face trouble for his comments, regarding referee Bobby Madden’s poor performance, claiming Hearts were playing “12 or 13 men”. Upset at the result, his side next travel to St Johnstone in midweek and host Motherwell on Saturday at Tynecastle.
As for Rangers, they moved top of the table thanks to a controversial win. That won’t faze the fans one bit, however. Next up, they host Aberdeen in midweek before travelling to Dens Park to take on Dundee on Sunday.