Rangers came from behind to defeat Partick Thistle 2-1 at Firhill this afternoon to re-establish their four-point lead over Celtic in the title race.
It was a grim struggle for the Ibrox men, who fielded very much a makeshift team due to injury and suspension. Making his first-team debut was 18-year old full-back Allan Hutton and also included – to general astonishment – was Russell Latapy with the suspended Fernando Ricksen and Shota Arveladze absent from last weekend’s line-up.
The Maryhill ground had a festive look about it with a row of Christmas trees displayed behind the goal at the city end of the ground and a line of Santas seated together at the front of the Main Stand.
A one-minute silence in memory of long-serving Thistle Secretary Molly Stallan was impeccably observed prior to kick-off.
From the off the ‘Jags’ were setting a frantic pace, harrying and harassing their more illustrious opponents, and indeed taking the lead in the sixth minute when Gerry Britton’s overhead kick found Kenny Milne allowed far too much space wide on the right by debutant Allan Hutton, and the Thistle player took full advantage by squaring the ball across the face of goal where Alex Burns rifled the ball home.
Rangers were clearly rattled, as was further underlined when both Kevin Muscat and Craig Moore received yellow cards in quick succession.
Indeed it took all of 25 minutes for the Light Blues to effect an attempt at goal when Lorenzo Amoruso’s 25-yard shot from a Barry Ferguson pass was just wide of the target.
The ineffective Russell Latapy was substituted in 37 minutes to loud cheers from the visiting support, being replaced by Claudio Caniggia, and Manager Alex McLeish made a further change at the interval with Bob Malcolm substituting for youngster Allan Hutton who in all honesty had seemed out of his depth.
Thistle had played very effectively during the first-half, although their negative tactics could hardly be described as entertainment. Rangers had lacked the spark necessary to open up a team that, even at home, had eleven men behind the ball.
The Ibrox men showed more drive after the restart with Stephen Hughes testing Kenny Arthur ten minutes in with a 25-yard drive that was beaten out by the Partick goalkeeper. Michael Mols was first to the rebound, only to see Arthur block his effort.
The Dutch striker should certainly have levelled matters on the hour when he was released by a Hughes pass only to shoot wildly over.
Two minutes later it took a Ferguson intervention to prevent Jamie Mitchell homing in on a Milne cross as Rangers diced perilously with defeat.
In a last throw of the dice McLeish used his third and final substitution, introducing another youngster in the form of Steven McLean who – also making his first-team debut - replaced Stephen Hughes in 65 minutes.
The introduction of the young striker appeared to galvanise the forward line, and within five minutes the equaliser duly arrived when a Caniggia cross found
Ronald de Boer at the back post, his lay-off finding Lovenkrands whose drive was blocked by Arthur only for Mols to scramble home the rebound.
Rangers now held the upper hand as Thistle tired badly, and two minutes later the ‘Jags’ were reduced to ten men when Britton – mouthing off at Referee John Underhill - felled Muscat with a raised hand and was immediately shown a red card.
There was a seeming inevitability about Rangers taking the lead in 79 minutes – and again Caniggia was the architect, his corner to the back post finding McLean who headed back across goal for De Boer whose goal-bound drive was turned over the line by Lovenkrands.
De Boer tried to claim the goal, but the final touch belonged to the Dane whose goal it definitely was.
Thistle were not yet finished – Martin Hardie breaking through in 86 minutes, holding off Malcolm before squaring to substitute Scott McLean whose 18-yard drive was touched over by Stefan Klos.
The final word however rested with Rangers – a breakaway by Caniggia finding Mols who should have wrapped the game up only to shoot into the side-netting.
Nevertheless the final whistle brought a 2-1 win and a priceless three points for the League leaders.
Alex McLeish afterwards reflected on the narrow win: "It was a struggle – my players showed character. We gambled in the second-half and it paid off."
PARTICK THISTLE Arthur; Lilley, Milne (McLean 79), Craigan, Paterson, Archibald; Hardie, Mitchell (Lennon 82), Chiarini; Britton, Burns
UNUSED SUBS Budinauckas, Gibson, Waddell
RANGERS Klos; Hutton (Malcolm 45), Amoruso, Moore, Muscat; Hughes (McLean 65), Ferguson, Latapy (Caniggia 37), Lovenkrands;
UNUSED SUBS Nerlinger, McGregor
REFEREE John Underhill