Rangers 3 Dundee United 1: Rangers fail to shake the Plain Jane comparison

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The Independent Football

From Pygmalion to Educating Rita, great metamorphosis dramas all contain a "reveal" scene where the swan emerges. But given that this SPL season has had such a varied blend of tragic, comic, tacky, farcical and epic moments, for comparisons with Rangers it is more appropriate to trawl not Ovid or Russell but Neighbours.

Specifically, we're talking about Plain Jane Superbrain turning glamour puss. Aussie soap-opera purists will not need reminding: episode 323, aired in Britain 20 years ago. The geeky girl in a mumsy sweater donned a Prom frock, did her barnet, took off her specs and "Ta-da!": knock-down gorgeous. At least by late 1980s Ramsay Street standards.

Rangers, like pre-makeover PJS, have relentlessly overachieved but been utterly dowdy. And then on Saturday, in the 18th minute, they threatened (operative word) to "reveal" they were entertainers. They were already a goal ahead through Nacho Novo's header then the Spaniard – a right-footer – walloped the tastiest of left-foot volleys.

Much later, with romp unconsummated and Dundee United now only a goal in arrears thanks to Mark de Vries' header, Rangers' Jean-Claude Darcheville finished a sweeping move involving Novo and then Barry Ferguson's pacy final ball.

Before their goal, Craig Levein's United should have had two others. Their shout for a penalty when Noel Hunt fell under David Weir's 55th-minute challenge was sound. In another stadium, Weir would have been sent off. But not at Ibrox by referee Mike McCurry, who also chalked off a good goal by Danny Swanson for offside.

In a seven-minute post-match condemnation of McCurry, Levein's sense of sheer injustice was only emphasised by his calm tone. It was truly extraordinary, as jaw-dropping and surreal, in fact, as the day that two of Neighbours' respectable dads, Jim and Doug, accidentally tripped on magic mushrooms (episode 1,658, 1993).

The guts of what Levein said was that McCurry "bottled" the major decisions and that "it is impossible to win at Ibrox". Levein actually asked McCurry, in public, why the referee had not telephoned him before kick-off to tell his players to stay at home. McCurry said he would call later to explain. "This has been going on for years," Levein said. "You don't get any decisions here. If [McCurry] had given those decisions against Rangers, he'd get hammered ... he'd never work again."

The reality is that McCurry would have suffered for a long time. A draw or defeat would have seriously damaged Rangers' title hopes. Perhaps it is time to implement Levein's suggestion that foreign referees take charge of high-stakes games. United's loss ended their chances of Uefa Cup football next season.

The flipside, as Rangers' manager, Walter Smith, pointed out, is that decisions do go against his team, albeit not on Saturday. He dwelt longer on the criticism of his team's style, or lack of it. "People say we play ugly, rubbish football, but this is a team in its first year," he said. "If those being critical are so good, why haven't they beaten us?"

Using one last Melbourne TV analogy, one cast of nobodies – Kylie, Jason, Natalie Imbruglia, Guy Pearce, Alan Dale and many others – went from zeroes to the top. Why shouldn't Broadfoot, Papac, Whittaker, Novo, Darcheville et al now do the equivalent on their own stage, with a Uefa Cup final against Zenit St Petersburg on Wednesday their next act?

Celtic's 2-0 win against Hibernian yesterday maintains the SPL pressure on Rangers. But Rangers' quadruple chase rolls on, as does a thickening plot.

Goals: Novo (7) 1-0; Novo (18) 2-0; De Vries (76) 2-1; Darcheville (90) 3-1.

Rangers (4-1-4-1): Alexander; Broadfoot, Cuellar, Weir, Papac; Dailly; Whittaker, Ferguson, Thomson (Furman, 52), Novo; Cousin (Darcheville, 85). Substitutes not used: Smith (gk), Boyd, Beasley, Lennon, McMillan.

Dundee United (4-4-2): Zaluska; Kovacevic (O'Brien, 90), Wilkie, Dods, Grainger; Flood (Swanson, 67), Kerr, Robertson, Gomis (Robb, 85); De Vries, Hunt. Substitutes not used: Camara (gk), Dillon, Daly, Smith.

Referee: M McCurry.

Booked: Rangers Cousin; Dundee United Flood, Wilkie, De Vries.

Man of the match: Novo.

Attendance: 50,293.