Rangers took a massive step towards defending their Scottish Premier League title after opening up a four-point gap on rivals Celtic with a comfortable 4-0 win over ten-men Hearts at Ibrox.
New Rangers owner Craig Whyte, who bought former chairman Sir David Murray's controlling share in the club on Friday, watched from the stands as his side raced into a 3-0 half-time lead through goals from Nikica Jelavic, Kyle Lafferty and Steven Davis.
Hearts' Eggert Jonsson was shown a straight red just after the hour mark for a crude challenge on Jelavic before a Ryan Stevenson own goal in the 83rd minute sealed the win. Celtic have the chance to close the gap when they face Kilmarnock away tomorrow but Rangers are now just two wins away from their third successive SPL championship.
Rangers manager Walter Smith was delighted with the manner of his side's win. "I felt both teams started very well in the game and it was quite an open match," said Smith, who is retiring at the end of the season. "Once we got the first goal that settled us a little and when we got the second we went on and played extremely well after that limiting Hearts to few opportunities in the game."
Jim Jefferies felt his side had been unlucky to find themselves so far behind at the break. "Credit to Rangers they took their chances when they came along. That is the difference if you get the first goal," the Hearts boss said. "Any chance we had of getting back in the game was ended by, for me, a bad decision to send Jonsson off."
Rangers stuck to the same starting 11 for the third match running with Lee McCulloch claiming a place on the bench after a long injury layoff. The first genuine chance fell to Jelavic as he held off two Hearts defenders before dragging a shot just wide of Jamie MacDonald's post.
In the 12th minute Madjid Bougherra volleyed a Gregg Wylde corner towards goal which Jonsson cleared off the line with the keeper beaten. Hearts came close when David Templeton sent a ball across goal that Stevenson was inches away from sliding in.
Rangers were having the lion's share of possession without really testing MacDonald but Jelavic settled the home crowd's nerves with the opener in the 23rd minute. The Croatian skilfully brought down a lofted pass from Davis wide left in the box before drilling a powerful close-range strike past MacDonald at his near post.
Rangers were screaming for a penalty when Jelavic took a tumble in the box under a challenge from Ryan McGowan but referee Iain Brines waved away their protests. Ian Black forced Allan McGregor into a great save low to his left with a fierce drive from 25 yards but straight from the keeper's kick-out Rangers increased their lead in the 40th minute. Steven Whittaker's cross evaded everyone but reached Wylde on the left who returned the ball for Lafferty to calmly sidefoot past MacDonald from eight yards.
Hearts began to disintegrate at the back and Rangers had a third a minute before the break. Wylde raced down the left and sent in a high cross for the unmarked Northern Irish midfielder to head home from a couple of yards out.
A dreadful challenge from behind on Jelavic by Jonsson saw Hearts reduced to ten men in the 62nd minute. Maurice Edu and Steven Naismith were also booked in the resulting melee as tempers boiled over at Ibrox.
McCulloch made his long awaited return from injury as he replaced Edu before Naismith came close to a fourth when he cracked a shot off the post. A Stevenson own goal sealed the win in the 83rd minute. MacDonald pushed Lafferty's shot into substitute El-Hadji Diouf's path and after seeing his initial shot saved the Senegalese striker sent the follow-up off the Hearts defender and in.
David Healy replaced Lafferty late on and came close to getting his name on the score sheet when he his low drive came off the base of the upright with three minutes remaining.