Rangers took advantage of Celtic's involvement in the Scottish Cup to move a point clear at the top of the Scottish Premier League with a narrow 2-1 win over St Mirren today.
Kyle Lafferty's effort was ruled out for offside before a rare strike from Bosnian left-back Sasa Papac gave Rangers a 33rd-minute lead. Their advantage was short-lived as Darren McGregor's superb volley restored parity five minutes later. However, Rangers got their noses in front again in the 52nd minute when Steven Whittaker converted a penalty won after Nikica Jelavic had been brought down by John Potter.
With Celtic not playing in the league again until their match against Kilmarnock on Wednesday, Rangers could move four points clear if they beat Dundee United the day before, although they will have played two games more than their rivals. At Ibrox, Rangers made two changes from their mid-week win at Aberdeen as Richard Foster and El-Hadji Diouf replaced Steven Naismith and Gregg Wylde.
Walter Smith was delighted with a hard-fought win. "I felt we played very well in the opening half hour or so and we managed to get ourselves in the lead," the Rangers manager said. "After that we lost a goal and had to work hard again to get another one but once we got in front, there wasn't a great deal of opportunities for either team to score."
Visiting coach Danny Lennon was upbeat despite the defeat. "I was very pleased in the brand of football that we tried to play today and we scored an absolutely terrific goal to get back into the game," the St Mirren boss said. "It is a difficult place to come and get a positive result but what certainly did happen was a positive display and a very brave one at that."
St Mirren moved the ball about with confidence in the early stages as Rangers struggled to find a rhythm but the Paisley side failed to test Allan McGregor.
Lafferty's shot from a corner was blocked by the outstretched leg of David Van Zanten as it looked to be sneaking in before the Northern Ireland international had the ball in the net in the 23rd minute.
Steven Davis found Diouf in the box with a neat pass and he laid the ball off to Lafferty, who swept the ball past Paul Gallacher, but his celebrations were cut short as the flag was already up for offside. Maurice Edu's cross from the right then evaded Davis and the off-balance Jelavic hit his shot over the bar from ten yards out.
Papac poaches opener
Rangers were beginning to apply more pressure and took the lead in the 33rd minute through Papac. Gallacher saved well from Jelavic's shot as he connected well with a Diouf cross from the right but Papac was on hand to tap the loose ball home from a couple of yards out.
However, they held their lead for barely five minutes before a stunning goal from McGregor hauled St Mirren level. The Rangers defence were caught sleeping as McGregor sent a superb volley high into the net from eight yards after getting on the end of Aaron Mooy's cross from the right. Mooy then forced a good save from McGregor in the final minute of the half as the goalkeeper scrambled across goal to tip his free-kick from 25 yards round the post.
Rangers restored their lead in the 52nd minute when the home side were awarded a penalty. Potter barged Jelavic to the ground after the Croatian striker had shown great skill to nutmeg Van Zanten and Whittaker stepped up to send the spot-kick past Gallacher after the keeper went the wrong way.
Jelavic then sent a looping header over the bar from six yards after Foster chipped the ball into the danger zone as Rangers looked to build on their advantage. St Mirren sent on three substitutes as they tried to get something out of the game but it was the Ibrox side who held on for their third successive one-goal victory.
Elsewhere, Hearts were held to a 1-1 draw away to Inverness, who had Ross Tokely sent off late on.