Incredibly Willie Collum sent off Mihael Kovacevic, Sean Dillon and Morgaro Gomis for denying goal-scoring opportunities and gave penalties on each occasion.

Steven Whittaker scored two of them but missed the third while Nikica Jelavic and Kyle Lafferty also found the net to secure the win the Light Blues so badly wanted.

The game turned on the action in the 21st minute when Rangers won a penalty after Naismith was taken down by Mihael Kovacevic and he was sent off by referee Willie Collum for denying a goal-scoring opportunity.

By the letter of the law Collum do no little else even although United complained vociferously and there was some time before Steven Whittaker was able to spot the ball.

Calmly and coolly he sent Pernis the wrong way to claim his fifth penalty of the season and sixth goal overall.

The penalty had come about after Pernis had spilled a shot from Kyle Lafferty and Naismith was quickest to react. It seems certain he would have scored had he not been taken down by Kovacevic.

Five minutes earlier Naismith was rather harshly booked by Collum for a hand ball offence when he used the top of his arm to control the ball and then slotted it into the net.

His return had undoubtedly enlivened Rangers and he was given a roving commission to support Nikica Jelavic and there is little doubt Rangers were the brighter team early on.

Of course, United had to change things when Swiss defender Kovacevic went off and Peter Houston sacrificed David Robertson in midfield to put on Barry Douglas at left back and moved Sean Dillon to right back.

They hardly had time to re-organise when Rangers should have gone two in front. In a neat move in 26 minutes Steve Davis played the ball through to Naismith who picked out Jelavic but from close range he pulled his shot wide.

In 30 minutes Lafferty cut in from the left and came so close to picking out Naismith at the back post and at this point the Light Blues could smell blood.

Walter Smith made a switch in 34 minutes when he brought off young Kyle Hutton to introduce El-Hadji Diouf realising that he could hurt United in terms of numbers. The re-organising involved Edu moving into the centre and Naismith going wide.

Indeed Diouf would surely have scored in 38 minutes had Jelavic not taken the ball off his toe after Pernis flapped at a Whittaker cross and Naismith headed the ball back into the danger area.

Bougherra marked his comfortable return with a trademark overlap in 42 minutes then crossed for Naismith but Pernis saved his header.

Then Lafferty forced a terrific save from the United keeper just on half-time with a right foot shot after Diouf had crossed from the right.

Rangers were completely dominant and United could do little about it and there was no change in the early moments of the second half.

Indeed they should have scored again in 49 minutes but the normally deadly Jelavic made a complete mess of a header you would normally expect him to bury in the net.

Naismith won a free kick near the corner flag in front of the tunnel at Tannadice when Douglas needlessly fouled him. Diouf played a great ball into the box and Jelavic had a free header but got it all wrong sending it high and wide of target.

 

The big striker was in again five minutes later when Davis picked him out with a smart pass from the left channel. Jelavic took the ball on his chest to try and steal a yard away from Severin but fired a left foot shot wide.

Then, remarkably, the big moment of the first half was repeated in the 59th minute when United saw red again, a penalty was awarded and Whittaker made no mistake – again.

It all came about when Douglas carelessly gave the ball away to Whittaker and suddenly United were exposed. Whittaker slid the ball through to Jelavic who had a clear run on goal and Dillon simply took him out.

Once again, a clear penalty and a clear goal-scoring opportunity and United were down to nine men. Whittaker stepped up and made an excellent job off the spotkick, once again sending Pernis the wrong way.

Sensibly Walter Smith withdrew Naismith no doubt saving his energy for Sunday’s Old Firm game and John Fleck came into the action.

However, Rangers were far from finished. They scored a third goal in 72 minutes and it was poetic justice that Jelavic should score given his efforts throughout the night.

It came about when Davis found time and space 25 yards out and hammered a right foot shot which Pernis blocked and Jelavic reacted brilliantly to tuck a right foot shot into the net from a tight angle.

Astonishingly, Rangers won a third penalty and United suffered a third red card in 78 minutes when, again, Collum strictly applied the regulations.

Bougherra crossed from the right and Morgaro Gomis clearly pushed Diouf in the back as he prepared to make a header. 

Whittaker stepped up again for the chance of a hat-trick of penalties but blazed over the bar trying to find the top right corner!

Jelavic was then taken off and on came David Healy to make a telling contribution.

With eight minutes remaining he took a pass from Diouf and laid the ball off superbly for Lafferty who slammed a low left foot shot in the right corner for a fourth goal.

It was a quite extra-ordinary night but most importantly it was a fantastic win in the chase for the title.

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