SUBSTITUTE Alfredo Morelos’ 28th of the season secured a deserved win for Rangers in their Boxing Day Scottish Premiership clash with Kilmarnock at Ibrox this afternoon.
Netting after 65 minutes, the Colombian’s strike was the difference between the two – though Gers had plenty of opportunities both before and after the winner to make it a much more comfortable afternoon.
Boss Gerrard named an unchanged side for this afternoon’s clash, following their superb performance away to Hibernian on Friday night.
That was in spite of Alfredo Morelos, Steven Davis and Jordan Jones all returning to the squad following a combination of suspension and injury keeping them away from the first-team.
After losing the toss and being forced to shoot towards the Copland Stand for the first-half, it was Gers who had the first opportunity of the game.
Slackness in the Killie defence presented the ball straight to Jermain Defoe, and he tried to turn Dario Del Fabrio like he turned Jason Naismith at Easter Road, but this time the Killie defender managed to get something on Defoe’s effort to see it behind for a corner.
Niko Katic had the next chance, popping up on the edge of the area after Killie had half-cleared a further corner-kick to drag a shot wide of Laurentiu Branescu’s left-hand post.
Kilmarnock hit back with a deflected Nicholas Hamalainen effort going by Allan McGregor’s far post, while Borna Barisic trickled a shot into Branescu’s arms after cutting in from his berth on the left side.
A stunning passing move from Rangers in and around the penalty box almost led to Defoe netting the opener, but again Del Fabro was there to put enough pressure on the striker to force him to shoot wide.
Gers were coming closer, and after Connor Goldson played an outrageous ball from his own half fory Ryan Kent out on the left, the winger crossed for Joe Aribo but in-slid Alex Bruce to block his effort.
Then from the resulting corner, Goldson had a header blocked on the line by Ross Millen, while Ryan Jack shot wide on the volley as the chances kept coming.
Glen Kamara clipped a side-footed effort from 18-yards off the top of the bar as the interval approached, while James Tavernier had a header on the end of a Barisic cross go right into Branescu’s arms.
Gers opened the second half in the same manner as they did the first, with Kent heading a Barisic cross over the bar within three minutes of the restart.
Barisic then had an effort himself from inside the ‘D’ as a Kent corner broke his way, while Tavernier blasted over from six-yards out to the right of goal after fine setup work from Defoe.
Killie’s best chance of the game came on 56 minutes, with Alan Power shooting straight at McGregor from the edge of the box, while Branescu did superbly to turn a Kent effort round the post at the other end.
Branescu then did similar with a curling Ryan Jack shot, while Kent had another drive, this time over the bar following a good lay-off from Scott Arfield.
Just when you began to wonder if it was going to be one of those days, on 65 minutes, fresh off the bench in place of Defoe, Alfredo Morelos nicked-in for goal number 28 of the season.
Fellow sub Greg Stewart played the ball into the area for Joe Aribo, and while he had a cluster of yellow Kilmarnock bodies around him, he managed to slide a super ball into the path of Morelos who calmly place it beyond Branescu to finally hand Gers their richly-deserved lead.
Killie responded with power nodding a Burke cross straight at McGregor at the back-post, while Morelos should have buried the game on 77 minutes as Tavernier slipped him in, but as he attempted to round Branescu, the goalkeeper managed to get two hands to the ball.
Morelos then did superbly to get his body in front of Del Fabro, win the ball and turn as the visitors looked to play out, but the defender did well to get back and get something on the Colombian’s effort.
Greg Stewart curled one over in the final minute of normal time, while Aribo looped a close-range effort into the arms of Branescu once the clock ticked beyond the 90.
It should probably have been much more comfortable than it eventually was – but there’s no doubt Rangers were terrific value for the victory this afternoon.
Now its onto Parkhead for Sunday’s Old Firm derby – the final match before the winter break.
RANGERS: McGregor; Tavernier, Goldson, Katic, Barisic; Jack, Arfield, Kamara; Aribo, Defoe (Morelos, 58), Kent (Davis, 78)
SUBS: Foderingham, Edmundson, Flanagan, Jones.
KILMARNOCK: Branescu, Bruce, Power, McKenzie, Dicker, Millar (Brophy, 63), Hamalainen, El Makrini, Wilson, Millen (Burke, 68), Del Fabro.
SUBS: Koprivec, Johnson, Thomas, Sow, Brindley.
REFEREE: Steven MacLean
ATTENDANCE: 49, 885