Questions are thrust relentlessly at Rangers, but for now the team are still alert enough to reach for an answer. In the gruff realism that has become a familiar trait, Walter Smith admits he does not know whether his side can continue to strive for four different trophies. Yet at the start of seven days that bring assignments in three competitions, his players disposed efficiently of Hibernian in the Scottish Cup yesterday.
The visitors were so shorn of purpose that they seldom troubled their hosts. The only moment of consternation came when the Rangers substitute Nacho Novo was sent off in the 80th minute, following a two-footed tackle on Thierry Gathuessi. As members of the Hibs coaching staff raced to the touchline to vent their anger, Smith confronted them and when this brief flicker of wrath had burnt itself out, the Rangers manager was sent to the stand. "I sit there anyway," he said wryly. "I just thought the reaction of the Hibs bench was poor, but I've no argument with the decision."
The Rangers players retained their composure, and resilience has been revealed as a character trait of this Ibrox squad. There is no respite following this fifth-round replay, with the second leg of the Uefa Cup tie against Werder Bremen coming in Germany on Thursday, then the CIS Cup final against Dundee United on Sunday.
So as the season narrows into a scouring examination of the Ibrox squad's depth, each fixture carries a need for renewal, with Smith making six changes from the side who started Thursday's 2-0 victory over Werder Bremen.
Despite this scattering of fresh limbs, there was initially a ponderousness to the home side. A 20-yard Steven Whittaker shot was tipped wide by Yves Ma-Kalambay, the Hibs goalkeeper, and from the resulting corner a confusion of bodies in the penalty area ended when the ball squirmed goalwards and Ian Murray hacked it off the line.
With only Steven Fletcher's rasping volley, which brought an awkward parry from Rangers' goalkeeper Neil Alexander, to show for their own attacking intent, Hibs had to find succour in limiting their opponents.
They were undermined, however, when Murray had to leave the field for seven minutes for treatment to a bleeding nose and Rangers took advantage. When Chris Burke collected the ball on the right, Abderraouf Zarabi was too lenient in allowing him to cut inside and the winger's left-foot shot sailed over Ma-Kalambay's yearning dive.
Twice, Steven Naismith almost added to the advantage, with his header bouncing off the underside of the bar before the ball was hurriedly cleared. Then moments later, Steven Davis broke away on the counter-attack, and released Burke, who swept a pass in front of Naismith at the edge of the box, but his listless shot was blocked by Ma-Kalambay.
The visitors could not be wholly subdued, but their sprightliness was kept at a safe distance, with Murray and Fletcher both lashing shots over the bar after the interval. Despite being reduced to 10 men, Rangers held on, and now they host Partick Thistle in the next round, with the winners facing either St Johnstone or St Mirren in the semi-final.
Goal: Burke (39) 1-0.
Rangers (4-3-3): Alexander; Broadfoot, Cuellar, Dailly, Whittaker; Ferguson, Thomson, Davis; Burke, McCulloch (Boyd, 81), Naismith (Novo, 67). Substitutes not used: Reidford (gk), Adam, Furman.
Hibernian (4-2-3-1): Ma-Kalambay; Gathuessi, Hogg, Jones, Zarabi; Kerr (Benjelloun, 81), Murray; Shiels (Morais, 71), Rankin, O'Brien; Fletcher. Substitutes not used: McNeil (gk), Zemmama, Chisholm.
Referee: C Thomson.
Booked: Hibernian Jones, Kerr.
Sent off: Novo (80).
Man of the match: Burke.
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