It might be a new season but this felt like something of a familiar old failing where Rangers are concerned. Given a chance to take the early initiative in a push for Premiership supremacy, they were unable to press home their advantage.
A yellow wall of Livingston defenders had much to do with that as they stood firm against pretty much everything Steven Gerrard’s men could muster. The visitors groped around in vain for the extra spark – of invention, of accuracy, of the unexpected – they needed to fashion a breakthrough. It remained elusive.
Slogging their way to stalemate was still enough to lift Rangers back to the top of the table, ahead of Hibernian on goal difference. But that is obviously not the sole measurement that matters in the initial stages of the title race.
Celtic’s early lapse against Kilmarnock has been cancelled out. With the Parkhead side still in their Boli Bolingoli-enforced shutdown, the Ibrox outfit had an opportunity to add a bit of additional pressure to the games in hand the champions will hold. As it is, Rangers are six point ahead of their rivals having played two games more.
The outcome will frustrate Gerrard given the huge amount os possession enjoyed on the plastic turf. A fourth successive win might have been claimed through a late Borna Barisic free-kick but Max Stryjek, Livingston’s debutant goalkeeper, introduced himself with a first-class save.
In front of Styjek, Jon Guthrie and Jack Fitzwater were outstanding as they ended their opponents’ 100 per cent league record. The bus was parked by Livingston. With the handbrake firmly on.
While never pretty, the point earned was all the more impressive from their perspective given the absence of Lyndon Dykes. The striker was left out as negotiations edge towards the conclusion of a £2 million move to QPR.
Without him, Gary Holt’s side had precious little attacking punch. A first clean sheet of the campaign will, however, feel more than satisfactory.
It was also the first time Rangers had failed to win at Almondvale since Gerrard’s first visit back in the autumn of 2018.
The pattern of play was established in the first half and didn’t much waver. Rangers chipped and chipped away. But every time it looked like a collapse was imminent, Livingston would find away to successfully rearrange the bricks.
The lack of supporters at times only emphasised the feeling of an extended attack v defence training exercise. Holt’s side often had a line of six strung across the edge of their 18-yard box. As their regular back four narrowed, Scott Pittman and Alan Forrest dropped deep like extra full-backs to try and curb the influence of James Tavernier and Borna Barisic. The defensive squeeze left the centre of the pitch hugely overcrowded.
It was up to Rangers to find the speed and guile necessary for disruption. Their control of both possession and territory was near-absolute, yet Stryjek was not being seriously tested. The Polish goalkeeper, with Eastleigh in the National League last season, was making his bow as on-loan Robby McCrorie couldn’t feature against his parent club.
For Gerrard, injuries to Leon Balogun and Joe Aribo had forced alterations. Filip Helander, who played the second half against St Johnstone, and Scott Arfield were the players selected to step into the starting line-up as the Ibrox outfit sought to maintain the consistency shown in the early weeks of this campaign.
Rangers had been in front at half-time against Aberdeen, St Mirren and St Johnstone. Seeking a similar advantage here brought a different degree of difficulty. If anything, their efforts became less convincing the closer the interval came.
At first there was a brightness about the movement and interchanging. Real pressure was applied for most of the opening 20 minutes.
Ryan Kent saw a firm drive blocked by Jon Guthrie that led to a handball claim with the defender prone on the artificial turf. Referee Nick Walsh wasn’t interested.
Barisic was regularly delivering with quality from left. When Tavernier replicated from the opposite flank, Morelos was denied by a clear headed chance by a terrific touch from Jon Guthrie. The Colombian later fired an ambitious drive into the side-netting but clear-cut chances remained absent.
The sale of Dykes will be a huge financial boost to Livingston, so there was never any likelihood of an injury being risked while the final details were talked. His absence meant a first start of the season for Jack Hamilton up front, one of five changes made by Holt to his starting line-up. Ex-Rangers midfielder Jason Holt joined Stryjek in making his debut after signing a two year deal in West Lothian last week.
Hamilton’s task with pretty thankless as he struggled to get much change out of the visiting centre-backs. One the one occasion he did bundle past Helander, Connor Goldson stepped across with a terrific recovery tackle.
Marvin Bartley also got past the Swede as the break approached. His low cross, however, was mopped up by the back-tracking Arfield.
Rangers hoped the second half would be more open, but Livingston remained intent on suppression. There was a faintly farcical incident when the ball was cleared into the top floor balcony of an office block that occupies one corner of the stadium and no replacement was immediately available. Then Stryjek was given a warning from Walsh over time-wasting.
Still, though, actually testing the keeper remained problematic for Gerrard’s men. Kent did draw him into a near-post block after skipping away from Bartley but a change in approach was required.
The Ibrox manager acted after 57 minutes, introducing Kemar Roofe and Brandon Barker in place of Arfield and Ianis Hagi. Holt mirrored the double swap, with Robbie Crawford and Matej Poplatnik replacing Bartley and Hamilton.
The frustration being felt by Rangers was evident. Morelos was booked for dissent after fouling his marker before both he and Goldson had unsuccessful stabs at connecting properly amid a penalty box scramble. When the striker headed off target from a deep Tavernier cross, his number was up. Gerrard summoned Cedric Itten from the bench for the final 20 minutes.
The Swiss was denied by a great Fitzwater block after Craig Sibbald almost shocked Rangers at the other end. Trying his luck from around 50 yards, Jon McLaughlin was forced into a back-pedalling save.
Stryjek excelled – and clattered into a post – as he denied Barisic a second free-kick goal in as many games. When Kent then curled narrowly wide in stoppage time, Livingston were finally safe.