Rangers triumph by winning ugly again
If winning ugly is the mark of champions, then Rangers are giants in European football. Time after time, whether in domestic action, or on European assignments during the last three years, they have struggled to cope with opponents, toiled to string more than a couple of passes together, and generally looked well out of sorts, before contriving to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with a mixture of cussed bloody-mindedness and ability to conjure up goals from the merest glimmers.
It often makes for painful viewing - and frequently leaves rival supporters mouthing the words "We were robbed," in incredulity - but there is no arguing with the effectiveness of this Ibrox collective, at least in terms of grinding out results and adding fresh baubles to the trophy cabinet.
St Mirren were the latest to suffer a mugging in the CIS Cup Final at Hampden, where there was only one team playing expansive, attacking football for most of the proceedings and it wasn't Walter Smith's side. During the first half, one could have been forgiven for wondering if the Ibrox men were the club in relegation bother, such was the sterility of their performance.
As Gus MacPherson's personnel cranked up the momentum and created a barrage of chances through David Barron, Michael Higdon, Billy Mehmet and Steven Thomson, it appeared only a matter of time before the Saints broke the deadlock, particularly when Kevin Thomson was red-carded early in the second period, as Rangers attempted to claw back the initiative with an aggressive approach, which itself was a demonstration that they recognised they were second best in most departments.
And yet, we have been here before many times on Smith's watch. Even in advance of the contest, the canny manager was at pains to dampen talk of an Ibrox treble. He laughed off suggestions about statues being erected in his honour, and talked up the threat posed by St Mirren. He knew that, especially in the absence of the injured Madjid Bougherra and the fact his influential midfielder, Steven Davis, was burdened by a virus MacPherson's troops could shed their inhibitions, and forget about their relegation worries for a few days.
Smith may have anticipated there was no pressure on the underdogs but he couldn't have predicted that so many of his leading lights, including Lee McCulloch, Kenny Miller and Kris Boyd, so accustomed to these high-octane encounters, would find it so difficult to create any chances for themselves.
But, as sometimes happens when a side are reduced to ten men, they discover renewed steel, vigour and esprit de corps, and thus it transpired with Rangers. This wasn't the first occasion where they had lost the headstrong Thomson and prospered - he was sent off against Hibs at Easter Road last year, yet Smith's men shrugged off the setback to record a victory - and their fortitude as the climax beckoned was a reminder that, while there have been much better, classier Rangers ensembles in the past, the current crop will never be accused of lack of perspiration or endeavour when the going gets tough.
What nearly did for them at the death - and surely scotched any notions of pro-Rangers conspiracies amongst Scottish referees for a while - was Craig Thomson's decision to send Danny Wilson off as well for tugging Craig Dargo's jersey. Yes, it was a foul, but football is a contact sport and this was a poor judgment from the official, one which made a mockery of his earlier laissez-faire approach.
Reduced to nine men, even Rangers were forced into shell-shocked retreat and yet they still refused to buckle. Even their critics must admit that their battling qualities, in the throes of adversity, are impressive.