Rangers 3 Dundee United 1
Rangers slashed Celtic’s lead at the summit of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League to a single point thanks to a double from Nacho Novo against Dundee United at Ibrox.
The striker netted with a header early on, before doubling the advantage with an impressive volley to heap the pressure on the defending champions ahead of their game against Hibernian tomorrow.
Mark de Vries did manage to pull a goal back for United but substitute Jean-Claude Darcheville helped himself to a goal late on to seal the win which keeps the destination of the title flag in Rangers’ own hands for now.
Walter Smith claimed Wednesday’s UEFA Cup final would not affect his team selection for the visit of United but it was no real surprise to see the Rangers boss make some changes from the 1-0 win over Motherwell in midweek.
Daniel Cousin, Christian Dailly and Sasa Papac all started, while Kris Boyd and Darcheville dropped to the bench and Steven Davis was missing from the squad.
DaMarcus Beasley – initially feared out for the season after sustaining knee ligament damage in a Champions League match in November – was named on the bench.
United made two changes from the defeat to Aberdeen – in came David Robertson and Mihael Kovacevic and out went Sean Dillon and Danny Swanson.
Rangers had failed in their bid to have this match postponed ahead of the clash with Zenit St Petersburg and perhaps they were galvanised by a feeling of injustice at the SPL’s decision, or maybe they were simply energised by thoughts of Manchester.
Whatever the reason, there was none of the edginess which had accompanied recent league matches against Hibernian and Motherwell and the deadlock was broken inside seven minutes.
United had proved more than a match for Rangers at Tannadice – claiming four points from six – and had pushed Smith’s men all the way in the CIS Insurance Cup final, but they had already succumbed to defeat at Ibrox this season and found themselves trailing at the Govan stadium again.
Novo took a tumble under pressure from Mark Kerr and won a free-kick 25 yards out. Kevin Thomson presided over the set-piece and delivered the ball into a packed goalmouth where Novo was waiting at the far post to nod past goalkeeper Lukasz Zaluska.
The little striker then claimed his second of the day after 18 minutes. A long ball from goalkeeper Neil Alexander was nodded into the path of Novo by Cousin and the end product was a superb left-foot volley which left Zaluska with no chance.
Celtic’s superior goal difference meant Rangers were keen to add to their tally and Novo hooked wide as he chased his hat-trick, before Zaluska raced off his line to close down Kirk Broadfoot at the near post.
United could have pulled a goal back when Alexander came well off his line to clear with Hunt bearing down on goal. The ball broke to Robertson but David Weir, celebrating his 38th birthday, came to the rescue when he nodded off the line and to safety.
De Vries then drew a decent save from Alexander but United failed to reduce the deficit before the half-time whistle despite their late rally.
The last thing Rangers needed with a European final looming was more injuries and they were dealt a blow when Thomson hobbled out of the action six minutes after the restart with a foot problem, his place taken by reserves skipper Dean Furman.
Once the action was under way again, United had a strong claim for a penalty dismissed by referee Mike McCurry.
Weir lost the ball to Hunt before desperately tracking back into the box to reclaim possession. Hunt went to ground under pressure from the defender but no spot-kick was forthcoming.
At the other end, Novo squandered a great opportunity to find the back of the net again when he pounced on a quick free-kick from Furman only to watch his effort trundle inches past the far upright. Dailly’s smart shot then struck the post.
United swapped Willo Flood for Swanson and he had the ball in the net, via a deflection off Weir, with 20 minutes to go. But the effort was disallowed because Hunt was in an offside position and deemed to be actively involved in play despite not touching the ball.
The visitors did manage to haul themselves back into the game six minutes later, and this time there was nothing wrong with the goal. A Danny Grainger cross from the left found the head of De Vries and he finished well from 10 yards.
Cousin made way for Darcheville and the Frenchman helped himself to a last-minute goal after meeting Barry Ferguson’s pass and slotting home to seal another vital win.