Football: Ragged Rangers

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The Independent Online
Rangers 1

Mikhailichenko 79

Celtic 1

Collins 29

Attendance: 45,853

SUDDENLY, with what would be a sixth successive championship within touching distance, it seems as though Rangers' resolve is crumbling. It is almost as though they are afraid now to reach out and claim the prize they have been pursuing from the front for most of the campaign.

Old Firm matches are always tense and fraught with danger for the unsuspecting and despite the experience within Rangers' side, too many of their players were nervous and hesitant.

Lou Macari's makeshift Celtic team, strengthened by adversity brought on by injuries to key players and a sense of injustice - Rangers' owner David Murray has banned Celtic's supporters from Ibrox until a repair bill of around pounds 7,000 from a previous encounter is paid - took advantage and made Rangers' fans turn on their own players. It was not until 11 minutes from time when Alexei Mikhailichenko, a second-half substitute for Stephen Pressley, scored that all in blue were united again.

However, there should be no disguising the fact that this was an inept performance by Rangers, who ought to be striding out to the title instead of staggering like an exhausted marathon runner towards the tape. Their lead at the top has been cut by dogged pursuers Motherwell to four points. Even though only three matches remain to be played, Rangers looked anything but convincing.

The first half was notable only for the quality of the goal which put Celtic in front and stunned the nearly 46,000- strong Ibrox audience into a disbelieving silence. Richard Gough had fouled Simon Donnelly 20 yards out and from the free kick John Collins curled the ball around a nine-man defensive wall and into the top left corner of Colin Scott's net.

It was a marvellously struck free kick by Collins, who ran the first half, but it was Donnelly, whose father, Tom, is a former Rangers player, who stole the show. It was his first taste of the pressures which hang heavily over Old Firm games yet he was always alert and willing to hold on to the ball, sometimes teasing the home defenders into forlorn and ugly lunges.

Rangers have a couple of days to regroup before going to Easter Road to face Hibernian on Tuesday night. The goal by Mikhailichenko, a player in command of wondrous skills but a touch lightweight for the Premier, the only moment of respite yesterday and even though it was bizarre - the ball appeared to take a deflection before looping over Celtic keeper Pat Bonner - it was welcomed around the stadium with a collective sigh of relief.

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