RANGERS put pressure on league leaders Celtic by beating Falkirk 3-1 at Ibrox and reducing the gap at the top of the SPL to two points overnight.
With Gordon Strachan’s men due to face Aberdeen tomorrow at Pittodrie this was a must win game for Walter Smith’s team and they did it the hard way, going behind to a Steve Lovell goal after only eleven minutes.
But a double from Kris Boyd and a terrific solo effort from Steven Davis at the death secured all the points and there was plenty of controversy to mull over after the final whistle with Patrick Cregg and Sasa Papac both receiving red cards.
Teenage star John Fleck was chosen by boss Walter Smith to make his first start which added to the pre-match build-up within the four stands.
The 17-year-old hot prospect was given a massive seal of approval by Smith earlier in the week and never let him down with a man-of-the-match display on the left side of midfield.
It was a terrific display from the youngster who showed plenty of composure and skill in what turned out to be a nervy encounter.
Steven Pressley was handed his debut for the Bairns with experienced campaigners Neil McCann and Jackie McNamara also included in John Hughes’ starting line-up.
Rangers started the match positively and in the opening stages both teams enjoyed spells of possession without creating any clear cut opportunities.
That all changes when Falkirk took advantage of poor defending with an incisive move that broke the deadlock
Neil McCann was given space and time to pick a pass beyond the Gers backline and Steve Lovell was there to slot a low left-foot shot across Allan McGregor and in to the net.
Rangers looked to respond quickly but a couple of wasteful passes and shots on goal, most notably from Kenny Miller, only added to the early frustration.
Miller was, it has to be said, denied by a terrific piece of goalkeeping from Robert Olejnik before the halfhour mark.
Broadfoot was found darting forward by Mendes and his cross into the box was laid back by Boyd to his strike partner.
Kenny looked to find the top corner but Olejnik dived acrobatically to tip it the ball over the bar.
Falkirk’s 4-5-1 tactics were clearly designed to test Rangers creativity and every time the ball was played in to the forward areas a wall of ten Falkirk players lined up to meet the boys in blue.
The Ibrox faithful were off their seats on 34 minutes when they looked for a penalty after Boyd chased a long ball and looked to be brought down by Olejnik.
It was the first of many controversial moments and Miller was to receive the first yellow card for forcibly challenging referee William Collum’s decision.
At the end of the opening period it was wave after wave of attack from Rangers with Mendes coming close with a trademark 20-yard volley in front of the Copland Road Stand.
But just when it looked as though the Bairns would go in at the break with their noses in front Boyd was bundled down by Darren Barr in the box.
The official hesitated before pointing to the spot but Gers. No. 9 did no such thing when he blasted the ball right down the middle with Olejnik diving helplessly to his right.
Hughes’ made the first substitution of the match for the restart with Dean Holden replacing Jackie McNamara at right-back and the visitors started the second-half brightly.
Fleck, however, was to show the attacking side to his game when he skipped inside from the wing and after beating two Falkirk players unleashed a low, right foot shot which was gathered by Olejnik.
Moments later and Falkirk almost the Gers’ backline napping again.
Lovell latched on to a long ball and McGregor sprinted 30 yards from his goal line to make a crucial block.
The major turning point in the game came on 51 minutes and Collum was again at the centre of things.
With Rangers attacking the ball slid out of the Falkirk 18-yard box. Mendes looked to be getting it but the Portuguese ace was brought to the ground by a poor challenge from Patrick Cregg which left him lying on the pitch in agony.
The ref immediately pulled out his red card which at the time appeared harsh.
Boyd’s effort from the resulting free-kick went high and wide and the striker was guilty of missing a guilt edged chance when Fleck delivered a brilliant cross but his downwards header from ten yards was easily collected by the Falkirk goalie.
With time ticking down Walter Smith elected top make his first change with Novo replacing Miller but Rangers were to suffer a blow themselves on 77 minutes when Sasa Papac was sent for an early bath.
Substitute Mark Stewart received the ball in his own half and, with all the Gers players up the pitch apart from Papac, decided to take on the Bosnian who blocked his path with cynical challenge on the half-way line.
With several teammates sprinting back it was shock, to say the least, to see Papac given his marching orders and the Gers bench looked equally perplexed.
But Rangers continued to push forward with the backing of a vociferous support got their reward on 79 minutes.
Novo’s fresh legs helped and when he sprinted down the right wing the danger signs were there.
The Spaniard looked up once before delivering a low cross which skimmed Olejnik’s fingers before landing at Boyd who tapped it home from five yards.
The relief around Ibrox was palpable but in the last five minutes Falkirk upped their game and made it an uncomfortable end.
But with only seconds remaining Steven Davis secured the points with a fine solo effort.
The Northern Ireland star nutmegged Kevin McBride wide on the left flank and he took the ball past two more Falkirk defenders before finishing with aplomb.