Most weeks, even when the Old Firm are ostensibly playing other teams, they’re really playing each other by proxy. Neither has blinked yet this season, so with Celtic going three points clear on Saturday it was up to Rangers to play catch-up on Sunday.
Maybe the one exception, the one time Rangers play someone else with a bit of proper needle involved and a fierce rivalry in its own right, is when they play Aberdeen. Why this should be, I’m not entirely sure, but there’s a definite emnity there which seems to date back to the Alex Ferguson era, was intensified by a few incidents including Neil Simpson’s famously awful challenge on Ian Durrant in 1988, something of a rammy which interrupted a match at Pittodrie in 2002, and has been rumbling on intermittently in the periods throughout. Obviously, Rangers have their other more important rivalry to occupy them, so this one is felt more keenly by Aberdeen, but there’s no doubt it is to an extent reciprocated.
It’s particularly noticeable at the Pittodrie games where Aberdeen, even when not going well, are able to lift themselves for Rangers. Before today, Walter Smith had not won here since returning to the Ibrox job in early 2007. They entered today’s game with some confidence though, and with Kenny Miller in excellent goalscoring form. For their part, Aberdeen have started the season with high hopes of an improvement on last year, but without Paul Hartley – the new captain on much a good deal of that hope rests and who strained a hamstring during the midweek cup win over Raith.
After a quiet start, it was the Dons who took the lead with the first real chance of the match after ten minutes. Scottish under-21 international Chris Maguire picked out Scott Vernon with a nicely-weighted through ball, Vernon had timed his run nicely to beat the offside trap and slotted it away calmly for his fifth goal in four matches. Rangers were dominating possession but struggling at this stage to create much: Kenny Miller had a half-chance saved at the near post by Jamie Langfield, and from the resultant quickly-taken corner Vladimir Weiss fired a dangerous ball across the six yard box but there were no takers. Instead they were hit on the break: Darren Mackie’s low cross from the left was hit early, and Maguire added to his burgeoning reputation by reacting quickest on the edge of the six yard box to put Aberdeen two ahead.
The next thing the Dons needed to do was keep calm and hold onto it for a bit – instead Rangers got themselves back into the game almost immediately. Weiss, the Slovakian youngster on loan from Man City, was their most dangerous-looking player, particularly in the first half, and when he burst into the penalty area from the left hand side Jerel Ifil brought him down for an obvious penalty. Zander Diamond shoved Weiss to the ground as he started to get up, a few more players piled in and for a few moments it looked like the simmering tensions might bubble over. But referee Willie Collum handled the game well – in that incident he booked a player from each side, Diamond and Steven Naismith; then Miller tucked away the penalty to maintain his record of having scored in every league game this season; and the game proceeded to half-time with no further incident, bar a yellow card to Maguire for a crude lunge on Kirk Broadfoot.
Aberdeen’s next job, as the second half got underway, was to try and keep things tight again for long enough to frustrate Rangers. This time they lasted six minutes before Rangers found an equaliser with a well-worked move. Naismith picked out Steven Davis making a break from midfield down the inside left, he looked up and in turn picked out Miller at the back post. Miller struck it into the roof of the net to take his season’s tally into double figures.
Thereafter it was just about whether Aberdeen could hold out, and it came as no great surprise when Rangers completed the turnaround and took the lead midway through the second half. Langfield’s punt downfield was returned straight back into the danger area and, as Miller trotted back from his offside position, Naismith burst through, drew the ‘keeper then squared it for Nikica Jelavic to roll the ball into the net. And although there was plenty of time left that pretty much killed the game.
To be fair, Aberdeen had a good amount of possession in the remainder and gave it a go, but the closest they came was a Maguire shot which span wide of the far post. When the same player was shown a second yellow card for bundling over Naismith with three minutes remaining all hope was gone. “Two-nil and you f**ked it up”, sang the visiting support, along with “That’s why we’re champions”, with which it was rather difficult to argue. Inevitably, though rather less endearingly, they followed it up a few minutes later with a rendition of Rule Britannia.
Despite the early scare it was a well-deserved win and a good three points for Rangers. The home side had had only two chances in the first half and took both but were otherwise second best for most of it. So Rangers go back to the top of the table on goals scored (the gap between second and third is already eight points after six games) and can now turn their attention to the midweek Champions League game against Bursaspor at Ibrox.
For Aberdeen, it was a chastening defeat given the score after half an hour. But while it may be their first home defeat to Rangers for a while, it’s not on games against the big two that they’ll be judged – next week’s game at Inverness will be a much more interesting test. I’m still not convinced about their revival this season, but at least Vernon – a summer signing from Colchester – seems to know where the goals are and Maguire is a growing talent. The days when they could pursue their rivalry against Rangers on equal terms are long gone, but someday soon it would be nice at least to see them back up in the battle to be the best of the rest.
26th Sept 2010