Malik Tillman ensured Allan McGregor toasted his 500th Rangers appearance with a victory as the America’s double downed Dundee United at Ibrox.
McGregor reached his remarkable milestone 21 years on from making he debut. But it was a largely stress-free occasion for the keeper as Gers eased to a win against the Premiership basement boys. It wasn’t always slick from Michael Beale’s team but two goals either side of the interval from Tillman ensured there were no slip-ups as the Light Blues closed the gap on leaders to Celtic to six points for 24 hours at least.
Beale threw all three of his playmakers Tillman, Todd Cantwell and Ryan Kent at United but the performance was a movie the Ibrox faithful have seen countless times before. Gers started with a decent tempo but struggled to maintain it in the face of stubborn resistance from a United side happy to sit in two banks of tangerine jerseys soaking up pressure.
Tillman’s goal eight minutes before the break finally broke their defiance and it came just in time to waken up a home support in danger of drifting off. It might have been a livelier first period had the Light Blues capitalised on their quick start.
Skipper James Tavernier was first to threaten but saw his back-post strike blocked by Mark Birighitti. United didn’t get forward often but they really should have done better with their first foray upfield.
Having intercepted Kent’s slack pass, Jim Goodwin’s team were quick to counter. Peter Pawlett outpaced Connor Goldson as he closed in on goal but opted to play in Steven Fletcher rather than take a pop himself and saw Ben Davies’ vital interception save the day for Gers.
Alfredo Morelos headed just wide from a corner before Kent went close with another opportunity as Rangers resumed their attempts to unlock the stuffy Taysiders. There was an early blow for United when Pawlett suffered yet more injury frustration as he was forced off midway through the first period.
Soon after Gers had a penalty appeal waved away as Tillman went down after Birighitti’s chased after his spill from a Cantwell shot. VAR took a look but stood by Don Robertson’s initial decision,. By the 35th minute, Gers’ were running out of ideas and United almost landed as Craig Sibbald’s swerving drive drifted an inch over McGregor’s bar.
But Rangers finally found the gap in the United defence they’d been probing for. It took some eye of the needle stuff to work the opening as Goldson’s pass to Cantwell was stunned into Tillman’s path, with the Bayern Munich loanee only needing one touch before delivering the perfect finish past Birighitti.
The Terrors keeper did though get a vital finger tip to Kent’s rasping strike, pushing it onto the bar as Gers came a fraction away from adding a second before half-time. But the hosts only needed 10 minutes of the second period to double their advantage.
Tavernier’s ball into Kent’s feet bounced off the winger but Tillman was in total control of the situation as he waited for United centre-back Ryan Edwards to blink before firing off his shot. The shot was in reach of Birighitti but not for the first time this season, the Aussie keeper’s weak wrists let his team down.
He did better to turn away a couple of efforts from Kent and Morelos before Borna Barisic headed wide.
There was a special moment for Gers stopper Allan McGregor before the match as the Ibrox No.1 was greeted by legendary ex-skipper on the pitch ahead of his 500th appearance for the club. The 41-year-old has become just the 16th player to reach the landmark tally after two spells with the club.
The former Scotland ace made his debut against Forfar way back in 2002 and 21 years on he’s now set to become the first Rangers player in two decades to receive a testimonial, with Newcastle lined up as opponents this summer. He got to enjoy this big day too as Beale’s team eased to victory.
He could have watched the action from a seat in the stand so little did the Tannadice outfit threaten. McGregor had a couple of tame shots to deal with after the break but nothing that was ever in danger of denying him a clean sheet on his big occasion.
The match sponsors were obviously feeling generous as they named him man of the match.
Gers’ false nine alarm
There were intriguing news on Malik Tillman before the match as Michael Beale revealed Gers have stepped up talks in a bid to make the Bayern Munich kid’s Ibrox stay a permanent arrangement. The Light Blues have an “exclusive option” to buy the 20-year-old, with a fee on the region of £6million rumoured to be the only obstacle.
But Beale told the BBC that discussions are now underway, saying: “Ross (Wilson) is away in the background speaking to Bayern. They have obviously had a change of coach, but we want to activate the clause that we got. There are discussions about that, but he has been really good for us.”
The USA international was more than good as he got the goals that killed off United and showed again just why Beale is so keen to get a deal done. Playing as a false nine alongside Alfredo Morelos, he was able to drift into gaps between the stubborn Tannadice lines.
And he was twice in just the right spot to bury past Mark Birighitti as Gers made it 18 wins from 20 games under boss Beale.
Tangerines in trouble
Coming to Ibrox might ordinarily be viewed as a free hit for the league’s bottom side. But Dundee United are now at the stage where they have no more opportunities to waste.
Jim Goodwin’s team, however, barely threw a punch at the hosts as they went down with a whimper. Two points adrift at the bottom, they’ll still in the relegation fight save for a remarkable Ross County result against Celtic tomorrow afternoon.
But they really could do with picking up points at a quicker rate than the two from a possible 12 they’ve managed under their new gaffer