Hibernian 2 Rangers 3
Rangers kept their title hopes alive with a 3-2 win over Hibernian which saw them move back to within a point of Celtic at the summit of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League.
Steven Whittaker’s early opener was cancelled out by Steven Fletcher but goals from Andrius Velicka and Maurice Edu sealed a crucial win for the Ibrox side, after John Rankin netted late on for the hosts.
The pressure was on Rangers after Celtic had moved four points clear with a win over Aberdeen yesterday but Walter Smith’s men responded positively to remain within touching distance of the champions.
They again demonstrated their ability to cope without Barry Ferguson and Allan McGregor after both were absent once again for the visit to Easter Road.
Boss Walter Smith revealed earlier in the week that the duo were both available for selection having previously claimed they would not feature for the club again as a result of their behaviour while on international duty.
However, both were conspicuous by their absence in the 18-man squad, although Sasa Papac was back in the first team and Kenny Miller named on the bench after both recovered from injury.
Hibs were boosted by the news that Fletcher had been passed fit after suffering a groin injury in last Monday’s draw at St Mirren.
Saints’ win over Motherwell 24 hours earlier meant Hibs’ place in the top six was secured regardless of the outcome in Edinburgh and they found themselves caught cold by a Rangers side under pressure to close the gap on Celtic.
The visitors enjoyed the best possible start to the game when they surged into the lead in style after just two minutes when the ball broke fortuitously for Whittaker just outside the box and he left goalkeeper Grzegorz Szamotulski with no chance with a superb looping volley.
Hibs could have restored parity quickly when Colin Nish teed up a shot for Derek Riordan but his effort flashed just wide of the post, before Fletcher nodded over from close range.
Fletcher then released Nish into the box with a lovely ball but the striker took a touch too many, allowing Whittaker to make the tackle and guide into the hands of Neil Alexander.
Rangers had a couple of chances to add to their lead. Velicka won a free-kick out on the right and Steven Smith delivered a teasing ball into the area but Edu just failed to connect with the header at the far post.
Steven Davis then whipped a corner into the box which was nodded down by Madjid Bougherra for Velicka a few yards out – but his shot cannoned off the goalkeeper and the chance was lost.
Rangers were left rueing those missed opportunities when Hibs levelled after 34 minutes. Lewis Stevenson found Fletcher in plenty of space with a cross from the left and the striker powered a header past Alexander into the bottom corner of the net.
The hosts made their first change a few minutes before the interval when Nish was replaced by Jonatan Johansson, who forced a decent save from Alexander on the stroke of half-time.
Rangers looked as though they were ready to make a change up front and throw Miller into the action when Velicka restored their lead early in the second half.
Whittaker turned provider with a long ball down the right and the Lithuanian gratefully collected before lashing home an angled drive with 53 minutes gone.
Kris Boyd could have added to the advantage when he raced onto a Smith free-kick only to fire straight into the hands of Szamotulski from close range.
Alexander came to Rangers’ rescue when he produced an impressive block to deny Riordan’s point-blank effort as Hibs tried to claw their way back into the game.
But any hopes of another comeback from the home side were dealt a blow when Rangers claimed their third of the day after 73 minutes.
Miller replaced Velicka and came close to adding his own name to the scoresheet when his close-range effort was blocked on the line by Sol Bamba but Edu was on hand to stab over the line from a couple of yards out.
Rankin then set up a tense finale to the game when he rifled home a thunderous shot from 25 yards with six minutes remaining – but Rangers held on for a much-needed victory.