Rangers moved to within two points of a second successive league championship as a late Kenny Miller penalty sealed a 2-0 win over 10-man Hearts at Ibrox.
With Celtic's last minute winner against Hibernian on Saturday reducing their lead at the top, nerves were on show from several Rangers players in the first-half as they failed to create any clear-cut chances against a well-organised Jambos side. However, a half-time team talk from manager Walter Smith seemed to inspire them and Kyle Lafferty headed Rangers in front nine minutes after the interval much to the relief of the home support.
Hearts were reduced to 10 men six minutes from time when Eggert Jonsson received his marching orders for conceding a penalty which Kenny Miller dispatched to set up a potential title party against Hibernian next Sunday.
The Rangers manager was delighted with the win that sends his side 11 points clear with four games remaining after a slow start from his side. "We lifted the pace of the game in the second-half and got that first goal and with a little bit more care we might have added more to that," Smith said. "When you have only got two home games after the league split you have to make sure you make the best of them."
Jim Jefferies bemoaned the strength in depth of his squad. "I thought we played particularly well in the first-half and Jamie MacDonald has not had too many saves to make," the Hearts manager said. "We played well but lacked a cutting edge playing with two boys who are not recognised strikers."
Rangers had made two changes with prolific goalscorer Kris Boyd returning for Steven Naismith while Maurice Edu made way for Kevin Thomson. Jamie MacDonald had to be alert early on when he was forced to tip over a Madjid Bougherra cross that looked to be dipping under the bar.
Kris Boyd missed a chance to end his six-game goal drought when he failed to control Miller's pass from the right before Lee McCulloch's shot from Kevin Thomson's corner was cleared off the line by Laryea Kingston. Suso Santana sent Craig Thomson scurrying off down the right wing but Allan McGregor cut out his pass as he attempted to pick out David Obua in the box.
Boyd tried an ambitious shot on the turn from 30 yards out but it sailed high over the bar before he set up McCulloch for a fierce volley in the box which was bravely blocked by Ismael Bouzid. Only an incredible fingertip save from MacDonald denied Miller after his header from a Sasa Papac cross looked destined for the top right-hand corner of the net as the second-half started brightly.
Lafferty then lashed a speculative volley wide of the post from 20 yards after a lay-off from Boyd, while at the other end Bouzid tried his luck from even further out when his rising shot from 30 yards skimmed the top of the bar.
However it was Lafferty, who had looked ineffectual in the first-half, that gave Rangers the lead with only his fourth goal of the season in the 54th minute. The Northern Irish international connected with Thomson's corner at the near post and bulleted a header goalwards which MacDonald could only push into the top corner of the net.
Rangers came close to doubling their lead when Steven Whittaker fed Thomson whose curling effort from 20 yards out was tipped on to the bar by MacDonald. With the match heading to full-time Rangers were awarded a penalty in the 84th minute when Naismith was pushed from behind by Jonsson as he was on the verge of tapping in fellow substitute Nacho Novo's cross. The Icelandic international saw red from referee Iain Brines before Miller tucked away the spot-kick which MacDonald got a hand to as Rangers wrapped up the win.