Captain James Tavernier’s second-half penalty rescued Rangers in their cinch Premiership struggle against a weakened Dundee United at a foggy Ibrox as they won 1-0.
The Taysiders suffered from a Covid-19 outbreak in midweek and boss Tam Courts put out a much-changed and youthful team but they turned in an impressive performance.
The Light Blues’ breakthrough came only when United defender Scott McMann used his hand to stop a cross inside his own box in the 71st minute, with Tavernier firing in the spot-kick for a welcome 1-0 win.
The league leaders move seven points ahead of Celtic who play Hibernian in the Premier Sports Cup final at Hampden Park on Sunday, albeit their Old Firm rivals now have a game in hand.
The home side went into the game unbeaten in seven matches since Giovanni Van Bronckhorst took over as boss and the performance was perhaps the poorest of his tenure, although the pre-match indicators looked in his favour.
Gers midfielder Joe Aribo, one yellow card away from missing the Old Firm game against Celtic on January 2, was on the bench as was left-back Borna Barisic, with Scotland right-back Nathan Patterson and midfielder John Lundstram coming in as Tavernier moved to centre-back and Calvin Bassey shifted to left-back.
While it is unclear who in the United camp was affected by Covid issues, in the event, there were six changes to the starting side which lost 1-0 to Livingston last week.
Goalkeeper Benjamin Siegrist, Kieran Freeman, Ian Harkes, Jeando Fuchs, Ilmari Niskanen and Peter Pawlett were out altogether and 16-year-old Craig Moore was making his debut as one of four teenagers in the side.
It was United who threatened first in the fourth minute when former Gers striker Nicky Clark tested keeper Allan McGregor with a low drive from the edge of the box before a Chris Mochrie effort was blocked by Bassey for a corner which came to nothing.
By then Tavernier had moved back to right-back, Patterson to left-back and Bassey back into the middle but the home side could not find any rhythm.
In the 15th minute United’s stand-in keeper Trevor Carson had to
deal with a decent long-range drive from Tavernier before Gers striker Alfredo Morelos screwed a shot wide of the post.
Just before the break Patterson’s cross from the left found Morelos but his header was tipped over the bar by Carson and a fruitless corner was the last action of the half.
Attacker Scott Wright replaced Lundstram at the interval but there was no immediate improvement, albeit in the 50th minute Morelos blasted a shot over the bar from 14 yards.
Aribo replaced Scott Arfield in the 64th minute and just before, Wright struck a shot straight at Carson from seven yards.
Moore, injured in trying to stop the move, was carried from the field on a stretcher to be replaced by fellow teenager Kerr Smith, 17.
Seconds later, McMann illegally prevented Tavernier’s cross from going into the danger area and referee Alan Muir pointed to the spot.
The Gers skipper slammed the penalty past Carson and the Rangers supporters cheered as much in relief as joy.
Morelos then had the ball in the net from a whipped-in Tavernier free-kick but the offside flag was up.
United went all out to draw level and 18-year-old striker Darren Watson sent a header onto the top of the bar and over in the five minutes of added time but in a day when the performance was poor, Tavernier’s goal could prove crucial in the title race.
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