Rangers 2 Dundee United 0
Rangers fired out a warning to title rivals Celtic by moving top of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League.
Goals from Steven Naismith and Barry Ferguson sealed a 2-0 win over Dundee United, and with Celtic out of action this weekend following the postponement of their game against Motherwell, Rangers went one point clear with a game still in hand.
It may not have been as emphatic as the 5-0 thrashing dished out to United in Walter Smith’s first game a year ago but the win would have been welcomed against a side who had inflicted one of Rangers’ few defeats of the season.
Despite what was at stake, rivalry was set aside beforehand as a minute of applause was observed in tribute to Motherwell captain Phil O’Donnell, a day after his funeral and a week since he collapsed with heart failure during last week’s game against United.
Rangers had produced one of their best performances of the season against Hibernian last week and it was no real surprise to see Smith name an unchanged side for the visit of Craig Levein’s men.
Nacho Novo was named on the bench ahead of Jean-Claude Darcheville after recovering from a dislocated shoulder, and Charlie Adam was also on the substitutes’ list having shaken off a thigh injury.
United made two changes from the side who defeated Hearts midweek, with David Robertson dropping to the bench to make way for Eric Odhiambo to make his first start.
Injured goalkeeper Grzegorz Szamotulski was replaced by Euan McLean and his first task was to pick the ball out of the net when Rangers surged ahead with just nine minutes on the clock.
Chris Burke did all the hard work and placed an inch-perfect cross on the head of Naismith who nodded past the helpless goalkeeper from the six-yard line.
Burke could then have helped himself to a goal of his own. He twisted and turned his way past the United defence before cracking a shot at goal which was turned past the post by McLean.
Alan Hutton was already the hero in the eyes of the Ibrox faithful – who chanted his name throughout – after rejecting an £8million move to Tottenham.
And he could have shot up even further in their estimation had he netted from the resultant corner.
Burke’s inswinger found the right-back a few yards from goal but he was denied by the woodwork when his header crashed off the crossbar and out of play.
When the second goal arrived shortly before the break, it was in controversial circumstances.
Burke was involved yet again in the build-up play, this time setting up Ferguson for the header, which was duly despatched into the back of the net by the Rangers captain six minutes before the interval.
Ferguson, wearing a number 10 armband in tribute to O’Donnell, saw no problem with his goal.
However, with two Rangers players loitering in an offside position, the effort was initially disallowed and McLean prepared to take the goal-kick. There followed a consultation between referee Mike McCurry and his assistant who decided the goal should stand after all.
It was Rangers who boasted the best of the chances after the restart.
Hutton attempted to cap a fine run by setting up Ferguson for his second of the day but delivered the ball behind the midfielder and the opportunity was lost.
Ferguson then slipped a pass through to Daniel Cousin and all the Frenchman had to do was pull the trigger but he attempted to round the goalkeeper instead and United managed to clear the danger.
Novo made his first appearance since the Champions League clash with Barcelona at the start of November when he replaced goalscorer Naismith for the final 20 minutes.
Another substitute, Kris Boyd, could have made an impact when Rangers were awarded a penalty with a minute to go for a Willo Flood push on Novo.
But the striker rifled straight at McLean from 12 yards as the hosts were forced to settle for a 2-0 win.