Sunday, May 17, 2009

Season 2008/2009: Match 26: Rangers v Aberdeen

I was down in Glasgow yesterday for what will probably have been my last match of the season, Rangers against Aberdeen.

Many people think that the rivalry between Rangers and Celtic is the most heated in world football, and it's certainly up there. But in terms of poisonous atmospheres, it has nothing on this clash.

Within minutes of kick-off, Aberdeen's fans were singing sons glorifying the horrendous tackle that almost ended Ian Durrant's career more than 20 years ago. There is no love lost between the two groups of fans at all, a fact that nearly 20 years of mediocrity for the Sheep Shaggers has done nothing to dilute.

In the run-up to the match, when Rangers moved ahead of Celtic to the top of the SPL a week ago, there were brief thoughts that this could prove to be a title party for Rangers. Had Celtic dropped a point midweek and Rangers beaten Hibs, a win yesterday would have returned the title to Ibrox.

I was at Ibrox in 1996 the last time Rangers won the title by beating Aberdeen at home, when Gazza scored a magnificent hat-trick for a team containing Goram, Gough, McCoist and Laudrup and I had visions of repeating that day yesterday.

Of course, that dream collapsed with a Celtic win and a Rangers draw midweek, but the title chase is still on.

Today's squad has nothing like the quality of that 1996 side - Barry Ferguson in his prime might have made the bench, as would Allan McGregor, and Pedro Mendes might have scraped into the squad, but I doubt that any of the other players currently at Ibrox would have made the starting eleven for that side that secured an eighth title on the bounce.

Ferguson was restored to the squad for yesterday's clash, starting on the bench, his recent injury and the furore surounding his Scotland squad misdemeanours having subsided. Also on the bench were Nacho Novo and John Fleck, Walter Smith opting to start with the KKK trio of Kris Boyd, Kenny Miller and Kyle Lafferty.

It was Lafferty who made the headlines, but for the wrong reasons. The big Ulsterman flew into a challenge on Charlie Mulgrew with his studs up, sending the former Celtic man flying. When both players were back on their feet, there was an exchange of words before Lafferty went down clutching his face. From where I was sitting, it looked as though Mulgrew had moved his head forward, but I was fairly certain there was no contact.

A flurry of text messages from Aberdeen fans of my acquaintance, which included the words "cheat", "embarrassment" and "disgrace" confirmed my suspicions - Lafferty had gone down in a blatant attempt to get his opponent sent off.

He succeeded, Aberdeen reduced to ten men with 72 minutes of the match still to play. With the title chase likely to come down to goal difference, Rangers would never have a better chance to pile on a few goals.

But they were horrendous. The couldn't create anything, with Miller too far wide, Boyd cutting a lonely figure up front and Mendes unable to wield his usual level of control over the ball, and the first half seemed to be dying a slow death when referee Stewart Dougal and linesman Graham Chambers conspiring further to inject a bit of excitement.

Racing into the box, Madjid Bougherra slid into the six-yard box in pursuit of a through ball. His studs caught Aberdeen goalkeeper Jamie Langfield in the face, and the linesman adjudged the challenge to be dangerous play, Dougal giving the big defender his marching orders.

So it was with Steven Whittaker at centre back and Steven Davis at right back that Rangers started the second half.

Again, they failed to make much of an impact, struggling to create much against a resolute Aberdeen defence.

Finally, with an hour gone, Smith introduced Ferguson and Novo in place of Mendes and Boyd, and within seven minutes Rangers were 2-0 up.

The first came when Ricky Foster, at full stretch, turned Kenny Miller's cross from the left beyond Langfield. Then, two minutes later, Miller himself netted from a Nacho Novo cross.

The sense of relief within Ibrox was palpable.

I've been a recent critic of Barry Ferguson's, as I think that he's been a liability, winning a place in the team on reputation rather than merit. There's also a near unbearable arrogance around him, as evidenced by his behaviour when with the Scotland squad.

But his introduction yesterday reinvigorated Rangers, and his passing was more direct than usual, opening up the Aberdeen defence more easily than any of his team mates had found it in the previous hour.

With Rangers two goals up with 20 minutes to play, the chance was there for the Ibrox side to chase more goals in an effort to boost their goal difference.

All such hopes were dashed in the 77th minute when Michael Paton scored a soft goal, the Rangers defence unable to close him down before he could shoot.

Rangers were then faced with a difficult choice - chase more goals and risk conceding again and dropping two points, or shore up at the back and settle for a win, albeit by a single goal.

They opted for the latter, and moved back to the top of the league ahead of Celtic's match today. Should the Mhanky Mhob win against Hibs, they will return to the summit for the start of next Helicopter Sunday.

Do I think Rangers will win the league? Blind optimism says yes, common sense says no. Too many times poor refereeing decisions, odd team selections, poor form and mediocre players have conspired against the club to believe that there will be a dramatic enough swing on the final day.

What's most annoying is that this Celtic team is as poor as its Rangers counterpart. Would any of the players have made it into the teams managed by Tommy Burns, Wim Jansen, Jo Venglos or Martin O'Neill? Scott Brown maybe. Artur Boruc at his peak. Maybe Aiden McGeady.

Financial limitations for both sides have limited the quality of player available to Walter Smith and Gordon Strachan. Rangers' squad looks old, slow and limited in creativity. I would never doubt the work rate of Weir, Papac, Dailly, Bougherra, Miller et al, but their abilities simply aren't up to the standards of previous Rangers teams.

A cutting down of dead wood would probably be on the cards for Rangers this summer were it not for a lack of credible and affordable alternatives.

But, as the song says, no surrender....bring on Helicopter Sunday....

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