Motherwell 1 Rangers 1: Rangers lack vital spark on the run to title winning post

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The Independent Football

So here we are, the last Monday of what will be a 68-game season for Rangers. Three games remain, two in the SPL, the first at Love Street against St Mirren tonight, then away at Aberdeen on Thursday before a Scottish Cup final against Queen of the South.

At kick-off on Saturday, Rangers' title fate was in their own hands. Christian Dailly's headed opener after a frustratingly typical upfield hoof suggested it would stay that way. Daniel Cousin should have wrapped things up in the 46th minute but, clear on goal, he hooked his shot to Graeme Smith.

When Chris Porter stabbed an equaliser – deserved by Motherwell's slicker play – the title race pendulum swung, blue to green. Since Rangers beat Celtic 1-0 seven weeks ago (to become 1-9 title favourites), it has been shifting that way, slowly. But this was a jerk.

Now the maths is simple. Celtic have 86 points and one game remaining, at Dundee United on Thursday. Rangers have 83 points, and two games to play. But Celtic have a goal difference better by a margin of seven.

Rangers' most realistic hope of glory lies in winning their two games while Celtic fail to beat United. Plan B involves thumping St Mirren and/or Aberdeen by a massive margin, which might negate a Celtic win.

Plan C sees Rangers taking four points from two games while Celtic lose, but that scenario, and pretty much any other, is clutching at straws.

Whatever transpires, the neutral has been gifted another run-in humdinger, as in 2003 and 2005. In both those years, the season went to the final minutes and the titles to Rangers.

Their manager, Walter Smith, says it is unrealistic to expect to thrash St Mirren. The onus is on any win. "I don't think you start a game looking to overturn a seven-goal deficit."

After taking only a point on Saturday, he was as honest in his appraisal of why Rangers – still chasing a quadruple until last Wednesday's Uefa Cup final defeat – are now outsiders to complete a treble in Scottish competitions.

It is not tiredness, he insists, although dropping SPL points in games immediately after earlier Uefa Cup ties might have been down to that. It is not cumulative pressure. He has insisted all along, rightly, that the adrenalin of chasing trophies counters that. And it's not "twitchy bum time".

For all the recent injuries and suspensions, Smith has a biggish squad, including some key seasoned pros, and through hard work and a team ethic, time and again, they have been more than the sum of their collective parts, and solid.

"I don't think it's nerves as such," he said. "The only thing lacking – and it's been lacking all season – is a bit of added composure when we really need it."

In other words, just as Smith last week singled out Zenit St Petersburg's Andrei Arshavin as the kind of player his own side lacked, he accepts that Rangers lack spark, and certainly consistent spark. Against Zenit, they barely got across the halfway line for the first 45 minutes. On Saturday they had the upper hand but faded.

Cousin should have killed the game. The long balls demonstrated the absence of anyone who can impose himself and define play. Barry Ferguson can and does do that, but not enough, and he should not have to bear that sole responsibility anyway.

Smith is far from conceding the title, and given the dramatic twists in previous campaigns, nor should he concede. As his counterpart on Saturday, Mark McGhee, said: "I think Celtic have a job to go to Tannadice and I think the two games that Rangers have are a little bit more winnable than the Dundee United game."

Smith was asked if this had been his most enjoyable season in management, with a quadruple having been so close for so long. "I think that's best answered at the end of season," he said.

"Or at the end of your career," someone suggested. "It might be the same thing," Smith laughed, before departing, just a home straight to go, triumph and deflation the twin impostors at the tape.

Goals: Dailly (29) 0-1; Porter (49) 1-1.

Rangers (4-4-2): Alexander; Broadfoot, Cuellar, Weir, Whittaker; McCulloch (Davis, 66), Ferguson, Dailly, Adam (Darcheville, 78); Cousin, Novo (Boyd, 83). Substitutes not used: Smith (gk), Furman, McMillan, Fleck.

Motherwell (4-4-2): G Smith; McLean, Craigan, Reynolds, Hammell; D Smith (Fitzpatrick, 67), Hughes, Lasley, McGarry; Porter, Clarkson (Murphy, 75). Substitutes not used: Daniels (gk), Lappin, McCormack, Connolly, Meechan.

Referee: J Underhill.

Booked: Motherwell Craigan, Lasley.

Man of the match: Hughes.

Attendance: 10,445.

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