Rangers keep pressure on leaders Celtic
Rangers kept the pressure on leaders Celtic with a 3-2 win over Hibernian. Walter Smith's second-placed side moved to within one point of their Glasgow rivals thanks to a strong second-half showing at Easter Road. Steven Whittaker had given Rangers an early lead, but Steven Fletcher equalised before half-time.
There were no sign of any nerves from Rangers, however, as goals from Andrius Velicka and Maurice Edu, before John Rankin's consolation for Hibs, ensured the title race is still too close to call. Rangers' bad-boys Barry Ferguson and Allan McGregor, who are available for selection again after being suspended for their boozy antics on international duty with Scotland, were left out of the 18-man squad.
But Smith's side showed they could cope admirably without them, as Whittaker opened the scoring in the second minute. The ball broke to Whittaker just outside the box and he left goalkeeper Grzegorz Szamotulski with no chance with a superb looping volley. Hibs could have equalised when Colin Nish teed up the shot for Derek Riordan, but his effort flashed just wide of the post before Fletcher nodded over from close range.
Rangers threatened to go further ahead when Steven Davis whipped a corner into the box, which was nodded down by Madjid Bougherra for Velicka a few yards out, but his shot cannoned off the goalkeeper. It proved a costly miss, as Hibernian hauled themselves back onto level terms after 34 minutes. Lewis Stevenson found Fletcher in plenty of space with a cross from the left and the striker powered a header past Alexander into the bottom corner of the net.
Velicka restored Rangers' lead in the 52nd minute. Whittaker's long ball down the right picked out the Lithuanian and he lashed home an angled drive. Kris Boyd could have added to the advantage when he raced on to a Steven Smith free-kick, only to fire straight into the hands of Szamotulski from close range.
Rangers snatched a third goal in the 73rd minute. Kenny Miller's close-range effort was blocked on the line by Sol Bamba, but Edu was on hand to stab over the line from a couple of yards out. Rankin then set up a tense finale to the game when he rifled home a thunderous shot from long-range in the 84th minute, but Rangers held on.
Smith was relieved to hold on for all three points and was perplexed to discover Rangers will be back at Easter Road for a third time this term after the post-split fixtures were announced.
"It happens in this league, you can't say you're disappointed because it has happened to us in the past going away from home three times," Smith said. "If someone could explain how it works, maybe I could understand it better."
Motherwell's defeat at the hands of St. Mirren 24 hours earlier meant Hibernian's top-six place was already secure regardless of the outcome against Rangers. Manager Mixu Paatelainen said: "There was no pressure in terms of qualifying for the top six. Overall, we had done enough in the season to qualify for the top six and we totally merited it.
"But the boys showed determination and sharpness in moving the ball. We wanted a good performance and we got it," Paatelainen said. "It was a fantastic performance, but you play for points so we can't be satisfied if we don't pick up the points."