Gers show grit to polish off Diamonds

RANGERS kicked off 2014 in the same way they had spent much of the previous year - by recording a win and picking up three points.

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Lewis Macleod drills home Rangers' winner against Airdrie
Lewis Macleod drills home Rangers' winner against Airdrie

But, boy, were Ally McCoist's team made to work for a 1-0 victory that maintained their 14-point lead at the top of the SPFL League One table.

They struggled to overcome an Airdrie side whose gutsy performance suggested they will not spend much longer languishing at the bottom of the division.

Yes, the game threatened to spiral out of control at times - at the end especially - due to the excessively physical approach of the home team.

But if it had not been for an exceptional save from Cammy Bell with just a few minutes remaining they could have earned a richly-deserved draw.

Gers had strolled to an emphatic 6-0 win on their last visit to the Excelsior Stadium back in August. Since then, though, Airdrie have undergone a change of manager.

Gary Bollan has taken over and the fortunes of the Lanarkshire club have improved. Certainly, they fared far better in their back-to-back outings against Rangers at Ibrox in November.

Airdrie were more than a match for their opponents in the early exchanges of this match and, given more composure in the final third, could have taken the lead.

Nathan Blockley squandered a fine scoring opportunity as his side attacked after Ian Black had been dispossessed. His slack pass allowed the visitors to clear the danger.

Nicky Clark had a shot saved in 16 minutes after being sent clean through on goal by a Jon Daly flick on. His close-range effort was denied by the legs of Danny Rodgers.

But Rangers took the lead shortly after that. Sebastien Faure played a long ball upfield and Daly flicked it on to Macleod on the edge of the opposition penalty box.

The midfielder controlled it well on his chest, steadied himself and then unleashed a low shot that hurtled past Rodgers and into the bottom left corner of goal.

It was the talented 19-year-old's fifth goal of the campaign - but his first in over two months - and he clearly enjoyed the moment. Nicky Law and Lee Wallace linked well to engineer and another opening in the 22nd minute. Wallace chipped the ball over his head before volleying just wide.

Macleod, who had been restored to the starting line-up for this game after recovering from a niggling injury, also went close with a half-volley from 20 yards on the half-hour mark.

Bollan's side tested Bell on a couple of occasions in the first half. But the Rangers keeper dealt comfortably with successive attempts from Jim Lister and then Darren McCormack.

The runaway league leaders were subjected to a few hefty tackles from their part-time rivals. Airdrie could count themselves lucky that only two of their players were booked in the opening 45 minutes.

Blockley received a yellow card for scything down Black - a fate the central midfielder seems to suffer every time that he takes to the field these days - and Caolan McAleer was cautioned for a foul on Macleod.

Try as they might, Rangers were unable to build on their lead in the second half. Airdrie played defensively and at times had six players strung out across the back line.

But you could not fault their tactics. It was more advisable than throwing caution to the wind and being taken apart - as they had done at the same venue at the start of the season.

As the game wore on, there was always the chance that Airdrie could snatch an equaliser. Centre-half Gregor Buchanan very nearly did so with an overhead kick in the 75th minute. Gers, though, responded well to that scare. Macleod supplied Clark in the opposition area and Rodgers had to be quick off his line to deny him.

Black was brought down again shortly after that by Jamie Bain. It was a bad challenge, too many for the player who retaliated foolishly in full view of the match official.

Both men were booked for their roles in the altercation. But Black will now pick up a suspension for his infringement. Such an experienced player should know better.

Despite his side's difficulties killing off their rivals, McCoist left it to the 85th minute before making a change. He took Clark off and brought on Ricky Foster.

The right-back and his fellow defenders were unable to prevent Willie McLaren getting a shot on goal that Bell did superbly to get a hand to in the 87th minute but Airdrie could not breach Gers' back line.

There had been an edge to the game throughout and this boiled over after the final whistle when Light Blues defender Bilel Mohsni received a second yellow for reacting badly to some of the tackles that had been made.

Earlier, on the 43rd anniversary of the Ibrox Disaster, a minute's silence before kick-off had been impeccably observed. There was also a minute's applause and a standing ovation in the 66th minute as a tribute to the 66 fans who tragically lost their lives.

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