Alfredo Morelos takes Rangers a step closer to Scottish title – but only after stamp on Hibs rival Ryan Porteous

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WITH a yawning 23 point gap between Rangers and Celtic in the Premiership table, it would not have been overly concerning for Steven Gerrard if his side had slipped up here once again last night.

The Ibrox club can afford to have the odd off day or night during the title run-in and still be assured of securing their first Scottish title since 2011 so great is their lead.

Still, this narrow victory, which came after the champions elect had been held to a 1-1 draw by Motherwell at Fir Park in their previous away outing 10 days before, was satisfying for Gerrard all the same.

A second-half Alfredo Morelos strike ensured Rangers returned to winning ways on the road, triumphed at a venue they had dropped two points at on their previous visit back in September and maintained their comfortable cushion over their city rivals.

It was far from perfect. Their failure to kill the game off led to some anxious moments in the closing stages as their opponents pushed for an equaliser. Gerrard became increasingly agitated in his technical area.

However, they did enough to get the job done. The result stretched their unbeaten run to 26 matches and kept alive their chances of going undefeated in the league this season.   

Gerrard handed Ryan Jack, who returned from a lengthy injury lay-off in the 5-0 win over Ross County on Saturday when he came on as a second-half substitute, his first start in over two months.

Kemar Roofe also made his comeback from after three weeks out when he replaced Morelos in the second-half. With two important squad members available once again it will reduce the slim chances of them suffering a catastrophic late collapse. Only 12 games to go now.  

Gerrard’s opposite number Jack Ross made three changes to the Hibs side that had capitulated so meekly to St Johnstone in the Betfred Cup semi-final at Hampden on Saturday evening.

He dropped his captain Paul Hanlon and brought in Darren McGregor in defence, replaced Martin Boyle with Melker Hallberg in midfield and played Christian Doidge up front instead of Jamie Murphy, who was unable to face his parent club.

With Hibs sitting in fourth place in the league some distance ahead of their on-form near neighbours Livingston, the semi-final loss was, while painful, no reason for their fans to take to Leith Walk in protest. But managing just one win in five outings had still not gone down well.

Ross’s alterations seemed to make a difference. The home team contained their rivals well. Ryan Kent dinked the ball between Paul McGinn and Ryan Porteous in the 13th minute and Joe Aribo stole in on goal. The playmaker, though, shot straight at Ofir Marciano. That scare apart, the hosts’ backline was comfortable.

Morelos barged over Porteous on the edge of the Hibs area in the 18th minute and then appeared to stamp on the centre half as he lay on the turf. It could be claimed the striker had been off balance and was simply trying to steady himself. But it was certainly typical of many of the flashpoints the Colombian has been involved in over the past three-and-a-half years.

Those of a Rangers persuasion would argue the forward was simply getting his retaliation in first against an individual who has previous against the Glasgow club. He was ordered off for scything down Borna Barisic in 2019 and was lucky to remain on the park for a foul on Lassana Coulibaly in 2018.

Referee Kevin Clancy was well positioned to see the incident and took no action. But players have been cited by the SFA compliance officer in the past for less. Morelos, who was punished retrospectively last month for his actions in a Dundee United game at Tannadice, could well find himself facing further disciplinary action.  

The man who has scored 10 times in the 2020/21 campaign worked tirelessly up front by himself and got a powerful attempt on target in the 32nd minute after good work by Kent outside him. But his effort was blocked.

Hibs had their chances too. Doidge forced a save from Allan McGregor in the first-half after being supplied by Josh Doig. Then Jackson Irvine sliced over the crossbar after the Rangers goalkeeper had inadvertently spilled the ball and Doidge had pinched possession.

Gerrard desperately needed a spark of inspiration from somewhere if his men were going to win for only the second time under him at Easter Road. Whatever he encouraged them to do in the dressing room at half-time worked. They forged in front with a well-worked strike just six minutes into the second-half.

Jack, Steven Davis and Aribo combined nicely in the build-up and Morelos, after he had slipped his marker Porteous, provided a sweet finish. Marciano had no chance. Unfortunately for Rangers, the scorer couldn’t replicate it thereafter.

He had two excellent opportunities to add to his haul, first when Glen Kamara squared across the face of the Hibs goal and then when Kent had chipped over the heads of the Hibs defence, and squandered them both. 

Roofe, who had suffered a quad strain in the first-half of the Old Firm game at the start of the month, came on for Morelos. Bongani Zungu took over from Jack and helped Rangers to see out the game and collect another three points. 

Jack threw on Scott Allan, Hanlon, Kyle Magennis and Boyle and Hibs applied considerable late pressure. It was a considerable improvement on the weekend. But it was not enough.

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