Kilmarnock 0 Rangers 2: Cuellar happy to help Gers win ugly

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The Independent Football

Carlos Cuellar, Rangers' mightily influential Spanish centre-half, has attracted one cruel nickname, Ugly Betty, on the basis that he has braces and dark hair, like the TV character of that name. But while the header he sank to open the scoring here yesterday was no oil painting, it was a thing of beauty for fans desperate for the SPL title.

It set Rangers on their way to re-establishing a four-point lead in the table over Celtic, with 14 games remaining for each, three of those Old Firm derbies. In combination with Kris Boyd's second-half penalty, it again illustrated Rangers capacity for goals across the team, from back-line to front.

Rangers were always odds-on bankers. They had won 10 of 11 SPL games before yesterday, while Kilmarnock have flat-lined: two wins in their last 20 SPL games would be certain relegation form but for little Gretna, the only club below them.

Rangers have conceded just one goal in 10 matches in all competitions, with Cuellar a colossal factor in that run. Yesterday's clean sheet was the eighth in a row. "That certainly helps us," said the Rangers manager, Walter Smith. "And Carlos Cuellar, [fellow centre-half] David Weir and [goalkeeper] Allan McGregor are the cornerstone of that." Smith said if he was concerned with one aspect of Rangers' play, it was that they did not score more than once in the first half.

Asked whether Boyd's goal will make his selection process harder for the Panathinaikos game in the Uefa Cup on Thursday – the assumption being Boyd will not start that – Smith said: "No." From this we can probably assume Boyd will revert to the bench. And that is because Boyd remains an enigma.

His strike record is marvellous, with 47 goals in 69 games since moving to Rangers from Killie in January two years ago. His ratio rises to an average of nine every 10 when he starts. But the persistent allegation is that he does nothing but score.

As the man himself conceded yesterday: "As long as I'm putting the ball in the net I'm happy but there are aspects of my game I need to work on."

Yesterday he showed both sides of his game: fox in the box mostly, but hints too of a tendency to be a nowhere man at important times, which has so often denied him a starting place for club and country.

He worked hardest early on, but later tended to rest not rove between phases of play. His first chance at a shot was squeezed away from him by closing defenders, but he did contribute to Cuellar's goal, playing his part in a bout of head tennis from Chris Burke's corner that led to Cuellar nodding in at the far post.

Later, with Barry Ferguson waiting for help on a counter-attack, he found only Jean-Claude Darcheville in support. Boyd was nowhere. Ferguson and Boyd later combined from a free-kick and Boyd shot just wide, but he also scuffed another effort well off target. He did convert his penalty soundly, after a Killie handball, to take his season's goal tally to 16 in all competitions.

Rangers boast a wider range of goal-getters in all areas this season than Celtic. Boyd has 10 in the SPL, Daniel Cousin eight, Darcheville and Ferguson six each, with three others (including Cuellar) on four.

Celtic have just four players on four or more SPL goals, led by Scott McDonald way out in front with 18. The Australian, born three days after Boyd in 1983, was among the Celtic goals as they won 3-0 against Hearts on Saturday.

McDonald could yet fall victim to the SPL curse of the over-dominant striker. The only top-scoring SPL striker to win the league since it was revamped in 1998 has been the exception to the rule, Henrik Larsson, in 2001, 2002 and 2004. Every other year, the chart-topper (Larsson himself twice, Mark Viduka, John Hartson, and Boyd in the past two seasons), has seen his Old Firm rivals take the trophy.

It is a curse Boyd should not worry about this season, leaving others like Cuellar to star as Rangers' leading men.

Goals: Cuellar (25) 0-1; Boyd pen (63) 0-2.

Kilmarnock (4-4-2): Combe; Fowler, Ford, Wright, Hay; Hamill, Johnston (Fernandez, 71), Locke (Di Giacomo, 87), Bryson; Invincibile, Taouil (Gibson, 79). Substitutes not used: Harpur (gk), O'Leary, Clancy, Corrigan.

Rangers (4-4-2): McGregor; Broadfoot, Cuellar, Weir, Papac; Burke (Novo, 76), Ferguson, Hemdani, McCulloch; Boyd, Darcheville (Naismith, 76). Substitutes not used: Alexander (gk), Dailly, Davis, Furman, Fleck.

Referee: M McCurry.

Booked: Kilmarnock Locke, Hamill.

Man of the match: Cuellar.

Attendance: 10,546.