At last, a well-timed reminder of what all the fuss has been about. Questions about the true value of Alfredo Morelos are easier to answer when he performs like this.
Last Thursday night, Steven Gerrard admitted the Colombian’s head had ‘been turned’ by persistent transfer speculation. With Lille still in pursuit of his signature, Morelos produced a sluggish display against Bayer Leverkusen that didn’t exactly exude commitment to the Rangers cause.
Perceptions were very different less than 72 hours on. Retained in the starting line-up by Gerrard, Morelos scored his first two Premiership goals of 2020 in a 74-minute showing that carried belated echoes of his excellent form of the previous year.
Constantly looking to be involved, he was a key link in a dominant team effort. An assist further contributed to the earning of man-of-the-match honours and a glowing appraisal from his manager.
Lille or another suitor could yet return to the table with an offer that expedites an exit. For now, though, Morelos has dispelled some of the doubts about his continuing worth to Gerrard’s squad for as long as he remains in Glasgow.
The Ibrox boss wasn’t fussed about letting him pursue a hat-trick, insisting the points were all that truly mattered. Substituting Morelos with new £2.5 million signing Cedric Itten also underlined the depth of forward options now available. The Swiss international didn’t have much chance to impress during a 16-minute debut as a comfortable afternoon for Rangers eased towards its conclusion.
Morelos had netted just once in his previous 13 appearances, so there was no doubt about the major positive from a happy, hassle-free homecoming for Gerrard’s side.
This was their first Premiership fixture at Ibrox since a 1-0 defeat to Hamilton on March 4, a dismal affair that signalled the further unravelling of last season’s challenge. It wasn’t just empty stands that portrayed change yesterday. Racking up many more straightforward wins like this will be a vital element of the attempt to prevent Celtic from winning a tenth successive title.
Morelos’ double added to a first half own goal from Conor McCarthy – who turned in a cross from the striker – and better reflected the control Rangers had throughout the match. It will be a script Gerrard hopes can be reproduced when St Johnstone visit on Wednesday night.
St Mirren face Celtic that evening in the second part of their demanding Old Firm double header. There was no lack of commitment or energy from Jim Goodwin’s side, but they struggled to retain possession or contain multiple points of threat – Morelos chief among them.
Gerrard’s decision to stick by the 24-year-old provided the main source of pre-match debate. His comments since full-time in Germany had seemingly laid the groundwork for a demotion to the bench.
As it was, Itten was among the substitutes while fellow incomer Kemar Roofe – ‘seven to 10 days behind in his fitness preparations’ – wasn’t yet ready for a place in the matchday squad.
There was, however, a competitive debut for Jon McLaughlin. Signed on a free after leaving Sunderland, the Scotland goalkeeper stepped in as Allan McGregor was still nursing a knock sustained against Leverkusen. In truth, this was the easiest of introductions. McLaughlin went through the entire first half here without seeing any meaningful action.
A reshaped St Mirren defence – including former Rangers goalkeeper Jak Alnwick – had performed impressively in an opening clean-sheet win over Livingston. This, however, was a different challenge. One that required disciplined positioning and a constant monitoring of runners as the Ibrox outfit sought to stretch them this way and that. Only Alnwick’s excellence limited the scoreline.
Morelos dropping deep asked the first of many questions. He pinged it wide left to Ryan Kent, before Ryan Jack took over with a cross that led to Ianis Hagi scuffing a difficult shot.
The dangers of switching off were clear for St Mirren. Winger Cammy MacPherson did precisely that when he failed to track Borna Barisic on a driving run that was expertly picked out by a Connor Goldson diagonal. The Croatian’s low, fizzed cross zipped just beyond Morelos’ sliding attempt to connect.
The Colombian had a clearer chance in the 12th minute when released by Hagi, but the near post strike lacked real conviction and was smuggled away.
Greater expertise was needed to deny Morelos three minutes later. Joe Aribo fed off a James Tavernier pass to cut back into the heart of the penalty area. Morelos took it on the spin and got good power behind a drive repelled by a flying Alnwick save.
St Mirren posed a brief flicker of threat when Ilkay Durmas broke. Halted by a perfectly timed tackle from Leon Balogun, it was the only real interruption to the relentless pressure being applied in the opposition direction.
The inevitable happened after 23 minutes. A Barisic out-swinging corner had the visiting defence scrambling, with first Tavernier and then Jack seeing shots blocked by the massed ranks of black-and-white jerseys. Their resistance was admirable but it couldn’t last.
Kamara kept alive the threat by feeding Morelos, who drove a cross from the right into the six-yard area. Goldson sought to home in, but it was Saints defender McCarthy who got the touch that diverted it beyond Alnwick.
The sole consolation for Saints was in not conceding again before the break. Rangers’ dominance was near-absolute.
Tavernier came closest in truly spectacular style. When another Barisic corner was cleared, the Ibrox skipper controlled with one touch before connecting with a 25-yard volley. Alnwick had to react smartly to deny a player he has known since their early days at Newcastle.
Opposite number McLaughlin was finally given something to do a minute into the second period. And it led to a rare flutter of nerves.
Durmas got half a yard on Tavernier to deliver a cross that McLaughlin misjudged on the stretch. Jamie McGrath sought to capitalise with a long, angled drive that was blocked. Durmas then saw a free-kick held by McLaughlin as Saints sought to reshape the story.
The regular plot-line soon resumed, however. Sharp interplay involving Hagi set up Morelos for an instinctive strike that was heading into the bottom corner of the net before Alnwick scrambled across. The Colombian threw up his arms as he wheeled away in frustration. It was a feeling amplified when he then glanced over a header from a Barisic cross.
Morelos finally got his merited reward in the 69th minute as he timed his run well to meet a Tavernier corner with a firm finish. A roar of delight and relief directly down the lens of a television camera explained what it meant.
Five minutes later, Barisic drove down the left and delivered a cross that was deflected into Morelos’ path. A tap-in polished off a restorative day’s work.