Rangers climbed back up to fourth place in the Scottish Premier League yesterday as Thomas Buffel rose above the mediocrity of his team to inspire an unlikely victory that brought the curtain down on a capricious 2005. The Belgian broke Dundee United's resistance and then made late goals for Steven Thompson and Peter Lovenkrands but the result flattered Alex McLeish's struggling champions.
They could return to fifth spot if Kilmarnock win tomorrow but McLeish made light of the current league malaise, preferring to recall last May's title triumph. "Apart from our blip in the league, this has been a terrific year for us," noted the manager.
Some Ibrox fans might dispute that. Reaching the knockout stage of the Champions' League has pacified those who wanted McLeish's sacking just a few weeks ago and this success was met with only muted acclaim, perhaps because it was the first in seven attempts against Dundee United in the league over the last two seasons.
Rangers' injury problems were compounded by the absence of Sotirios Kyrgiakos, and McLeish fielded yet another back four that had not played together. That unfamiliarity was almost punished in the early stages as United carved the champions open on several occasions. Had Ian Murray not stuck out a leg, then Collin Samuel's third-minute surge into the box would have produced a goal. Seconds later, Samuel profited from a mix-up between Marvin Andrews and the goalkeeper Ronald Waterreus only to see his net-bound shot turned away by Stevie Smith.
Andrews was having a wretched time, as another dreadful exchange with Waterreus illustrated, although the goalkeeper redeemed himself with a remarkable save to parry Mark Wilson's raking shot.
Then Jim McIntyre's diving header from Wilson's cross brought another save out of Waterreus. Rangers had barely been glimpsed as a threat.
Nine minutes before the break, they finally conjured up an attack as Nacho Novo and Buffel combined for Barry Ferguson to drill a low shot that was superbly kept out by Derek Stillie while Paul Ritchie did the same to Chris Burke's follow-up.
The first hour was controlled by the visitors but eventually Buffel's influence turned the tide. The Belgian international profited in the 69th minute from some ball-watching to break the deadlock. Buffel crept in at the back post to finish off Alan Lowing's cross which was knocked down by Thompson, with the United defenders perhaps put off by Lovenkrands' failed attempt at an overhead kick.
Suddenly, fatigue consumed United. The hitherto anonymous Chris Burke then tore the visitors apart on the right, combining with Buffel in the 84th minute for a cross which was buried by Thompson's header.
Three minutes later, dreadful marking allowed Lovenkrands to steal in and finish off Burke's cross with a diving header for his ninth goal in six games.Reuse content