A Barry Ferguson hat-trick ensured victory for Rangers over Dundee United at Ibrox this afternoon in a game where both teams were reduced to ten men during a torrid second-half.
There were three changes in Alex McLeish’s starting line-up from that which defeated Celtic one week ago, with Kevin Muscat, Stephen Hughes and Peter Lovenkrands replacing Maurice Ross, Arthur Numan and Neil McCann.
It took ten minutes or thereabouts for the game to warm up, but when it did a slide-rule pass from Hughes found Shota Arveladze whose left-foot shot was turned wide by Paul Gallacher.
The opening goal was merely delayed however – Derek Lilley’s twelfth minute foul on Lovenkrands brought a yellow card from Referee Stuart Dougal and was punished to the full when Barry Ferguson’s superb 25-yard free-kick found the net via an upright.
Five minutes later Rangers carved open the United defence with some superb football only for Arveladze’s goal to be chalked off for offside.
It was all Rangers – another Arveladze effort in 25 minutes came close when Gallacher held his twenty-yard left-foot shot from a Michael Mols lay-off.
Despite the home superiority a one-goal lead is never enough, as was demonstrated in 36 minutes when an error by Hughes allowed Lilley to home in on goal only to see his drive beaten out by Stefan Klos.
A less than memorable first-half ended 1-0, but a magnificent solo goal by Ferguson in 56 minutes put Rangers two up when he dispossessed Mark Wilson on the halfway line and ran forty yards before slotting the ball past the out-rushing goalkeeper.
A game that had on the whole been fairly mundane suddenly erupted three minutes later when Fernando Ricksen was red-carded for a tackle on Charlie Miller.
The incident brought the wrath of the crowd down upon Messrs Dougal and Miller, despite the latter being an ex-Ranger.
United now had the notion that they might yet rescue something from the game, and indeed had substitute Allan Smart not been denied by Klos when he was clean through on goal in 62 minutes then the outcome must have been in doubt.
Within seconds Craig Easton chopped down Ronald De Boer in midfield without punishment from the referee, the very same official of whom Dick Advocaat had complained so bitterly some two years ago, and shortly afterwards Dougal was speaking earnestly to the Ibrox dugout.
Kevin Muscat forced his way through the United defence in 66 minutes only to see Michael Mols shoot over. With both Bob Malcolm and Christian Nerlinger replacing De Boer and Mols Rangers appeared to have weathered the storm, and any remaining doubt disappeared in 79 minutes when Dundee United themselves were reduced to ten men when Jim McIntyre was red-carded for a swipe at Arveladze with the ball long gone. Under the letter of the law, and given what had gone before, the referee had little option.
Five minutes later victory was sealed when Barry Ferguson completed his first-ever hat-trick at first-team level, converting a penalty after David McCracken had upended Shota Arveladze.
Twice in the closing minutes Lovenkrands came close to adding a fourth, firstly when he rifled a long Lorenzo Amoruso clearance into the side netting, then when Gallacher blocked his effort from a Malcolm pass.
Manager Alex McLeish afterwards observed:
"I doubt that Fernando’s tackle was malicious. Stuart Dougal is a good ref, but every card Ricksen has received this season has been from this referee. Even Paul Hegarty tried to stop the ordering-off."
On Barry Ferguson:
"Barry was fantastic, He has the potential to be a world-class player."
RANGERS Klos; Ricksen, Moore, Amoruso, Muscat; Hughes, Ferguson, De Boer (Malcolm 68), Lovenkrands; Mols (Nerlinger 78), Arveladze
UNUSED SUBS McGregor, Latapy, Hutton
DUNDEE UNITED Gallacher; McCunnie, McCracken, Wilson, Paterson; Easton, Miller, Lilley (Carson 67), McIntyre; Hamilton, Thompson (Smart 59)
UNUSED SUBS Combe, Cummings, Duff
Referee Stuart Dougal