Sunshine on Leith - Rangers win five-goal thriller
Rangers secured a priceless win in the title race this afternoon with a thrilling 3-2 win over Hibernian at Easter Road - but once again this was a game that should have been won much more easily.
Manager Walter Smith made one change from last weekend with Sasa Papac replacing Christian Dailly, there being no room even on the bench for Allan McGregor and Barry Ferguson.
Rangers got off to the perfect start in the second minute when a Sasa Papac free-kick was headed out by Chris Hogg. the ball falling to Steven Whittaker who found the net via the underside of the bar with a stunning left-foot shot from all of 25 yards.
The home side soon responded - six minutes later Derek Riordan shot wide from a John Rankin cross, then sixty seconds later Steven Fletcher headed over from Lewis Stevenson's cross.
Goal hero Whittaker came to the rescue at the other end in fifteen minutes when he dispossessed Colin Nish when the Hibs forward was through on a Fletcher pass.
The Ibrox men soon regained control - Steven Smith's inswinging 25th minute free-kick being headed inches wide by Maurice Edu, then four minutes later an inswinging corner from the same player saw Madjid Bougherra at the back post head across goal to Andrius Velicka who stabbed the ball wide.
Rangers were made to pay for those misses - Fletcher making no mistake in 33 minutes when he was offered a free header from a Stevenson cross.
Eight minutes later former Ibrox striker Jonatan Johansson replaced the limping Nish - and on the cusp of the interval JJ raced through on a Fletcher pass only to see Neil Alexander hold his shot.
The Light Blues regained the lead in 52 minutes when Velicka netted with an angled drive from a Whittaker pass.
Six minutes later another inswinging free-kick from Smith was touched on by Boyd only to see home goalkeeper Grzegtorz Szamotulski equal to the task.
It was end-to-end action at this juncture - Riordan, through on a Denes Rosa pass in 68 minutes, saw his shot blocked by Alexander.
Sixty seconds later Kenny Miller substituted for Velicka - and within two minutes the former Hibs man was released by Pedro Mendes following a superb turn and pass by the Portuguese midfielder. Miller cut inside only to see Szamotulski turn his shot wide.
It mattered little however - from the resultant Mendes corner David Weir's header was parried into the air by Szamotulski, Kris Boyd's close-range effort from the rebound was blocked on the line by Souleymane Bamba, the loose ball falling to Edu who blasted it into the roof of the net.
Miller almost made it four in 78 minutes when he got on the end of Edu's long pass only to see his stabbed shot deflected wide.
The home side had not given up the ghost however - sixty seconds later Bamba's thirty-yard drive was held by Alexander.
An enthralling finish was assured in 83 minutes when Rankin netted with a 25-yard thunderbolt after Riordan's corner had been headed out by Weir.
Rangers held firm however for a crucial win and afterwards Walter Smith commented:
"I was delighted to win. This is never an easy place to come to. The early goal gave us a nice cushion. Our possession was not as good as it might have been. Hibs played very well. We were better in the second-half. "
Informed that Rangers have to visit Easter Road for a third time after the split, the Ibrox Boss sighed:
"It happens - that's the SPL."
HIBERNIAN Szamotulski; Van Zanten (O'Brien 81), Hogg, Jones, Stevenson; Rankin, Bamba, Rosa, Riordan; Nish (Johansson 41), Fletcher
UNUSED SUBS Ma-Kalambay, Murray, Chisholm, McCormack, Thicot
RANGERS Alexander; Whittaker, Weir, Bougherra, Papac (Dailly 76); Davis, Edu, Mendes, S. Smith; Boyd (Novo 87), Velicka (Miller 69)
UNUSED SUBS G. Smith, Aaron, Fleck, Little
REFEREE Steve Conroy