In the latest instalment of their gripping game of cat and mouse, Rangers reduced Celtic’s lead at the top of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League to two points yesterday. They were indebted to Nikica Jelavic, whose exquisite free-kick separated the teams. It was a fine strike, out of keeping with the rest of the visitors’ display.
Hamilton haven’t taken a point from Rangers since Johnny Martin’s last-minute goal gave them a 1-1 home draw on March 6, 1954, but they should have taken something from a match which they dominated for the first half. There is a reason, though, why they haven’t won at home in the league for a calendar year and why they haven’t won their last 23 matches against SPL opposition. Hamilton, frankly, have no cutting edge and it’s just as well for Rangers’ championship hopes that they were found wanting in that department again yesterday.
Unexpectedly, perhaps, given their wretched recent run, it was the home side who created the first decent opening, although no one was surprised when they spurned it. Dougie Imrie was the architect, bursting behind Richard Foster to cut the ball back for Gary McDonald. The midfielder, 29 yesterday, has yet to break his duck for Hamilton since signing from Aberdeen last summer and he scuffed his shot wide on this occasion.
Five minutes later Accies squandered an even better chance, missing from the penalty spot. Imrie won the award, jinking past Steven Naismith before being floored by a clumsy challenge from Steven Davis.
Imrie put himself on the spot but his attempted conversion lacked conviction and Allan McGregor, diving to his right, saved comfortably. “We’ve got to score from that and it sums up our season: we’re on top and we don’t take our chances,” said Hamilton manager Billy Reid.
Maurice Edu was then required to perform a goal-saving block to prevent Imrie converting Nigel Hasselbaink’s driven cross. Hamilton contrived to pass up another glorious opportunity in the 34th minute. Ali Crawford’s cross was missed completely by David Buchanan at the near post and then McDonald, three yards out, couldn’t make sufficient contact to force the ball over the line.
It took Rangers 39 minutes to register an effort on target and when they did Tomas Cerny, celebrating his 26th birthday, was equal to Edu’s raking left-foot drive. However, Accies paid for their earlier profligacy when their captain, Alex Neil, brought down Jelavic on the edge of the penalty area and the Croatian curled the resulting free-kick into the postage-stamp corner of Cerny’s net.
The second half was dire indeed and nothing noteworthy occurred until the 75th minute, when substitute Jim
McAlister’s shot from 20 yards was spectacularly pushed away by McGregor at full stretch. No one has scored fewer goals in the top flight than Hamilton, however, and, on a glorious afternoon for football, this encounter petered out.
“We struggled in terms of our performance,” admitted Rangers manager Walter Smith. “We never really got up to the pace of the game and there were only one or two spells where we played at the required level.
“I’m not complaining about the team’s display because these lads have played an awful lot of football this season and at the moment I’m just trying to keep them going.”
Smith, who dismissed reports that Madjid Bougherra had rejected a new contract and that Slovakian winger Vladimir Weiss will miss the rest of the season with a broken foot, was at least pleased that the travelling support refrained from singing the sectarian anthems which last week landed them in trouble with Uefa once again. “There seemed to be a good reaction from them and I hope that continues,” he said.
Rangers can look forward to the imminent return of Lee McCulloch and Kirk Broadfoot and the destination of the championship trophy remains in their hands. For Accies, though, 12 points adrift of second-bottom St Mirren, oblivion beckons.
Sunday, 10 April 2011
Hamilton 0 Rangers 1 (Jelavic, 44´)
Hamilton Accies (5-4-1): Cerny; Gillespie (McAlister 67), Elebert (Carrington 33), Neil, Mensing, Buchanan; McDonald, Crawford, Wildig (Chambers 53), Imrie; Hasselbaink. Subs: Murdoch (g), Skelton, Graham, Elliott. Booked: Neil.
Rangers (4-4-2): McGregor; Foster, Whittaker, Weir, Papac; Naismith, Edu (Diouf 70), Davis, Wylde (Ness h-t); Jelavic, Lafferty (Fleck 79). Subs: Alexander (g), Healy, Kerkar, Hutton. Booked: Naismith, Edu, Weir.
Referee: A Muir.