THIS cup tie may have finished up goalless, but, this being Scottish football, it wasn’t without its contentious moments.
Steve Clarke, the Kilmarnock manager, has spent much of the week appealing for consistency in the punishments meted out by the SFA, but last night it was the turn of Steven Gerrard, his Rangers counterpart, to express a desire for uniformity.
Gerrard has endeavoured not to criticise match officials for their displays following the meeting between top flight managers and referees’ representatives in Perth last month and he managed to bite his tongue following this stalemate.
“No comment,” was his response to a question about the yellow card that Kilmarnock midfielder Alan Power was shown for a challenge on Rangers man Ryan Jack in the first-half that left his opponent requiring medical attention.
Power, who was as ever hugely influential for his side, kicked Jack in the head as he challenged for a ball in the air. It was by no means a malicious act, but many in the 11,430-strong crowd and watching on television at home felt the midfielder could have seen red. It certainly would have made a difference to the final outcome if he had.
Will the compliance officer see fit to take retrospective disciplinary action in the coming days? Gerrard, who faces losing his Allan McGregor for two games after his goalkeeper was cited on Friday for a challenge on Lewis Ferguson in the Aberdeen game two days earlier, is curious to find out.
“I’ll be interested to see whether there’s a citing,” he said. ” I just hope moving forward we can find consistency. That’s all I can say on it.”
In the end, a draw was a fair result. But Rangers were by far the happier of the two teams at the end of the 90 minutes. They will fancy their chances of progressing to the quarter-final in the replay at Ibrox on Wednesday week when they will have Alfredo Morelos, their leading goalscorer, available once again.
Clarke handed Youssouf Mulumbu his first start since the Congolese midfielder returned to Kilmarnock on loan from Celtic until the end of the season last month. He started ahead of Aaron Tshibola, who injured himself in the warm-up, while Scott Boyd came in for Stuart Findlay at the back.
Gerrard also made two changes to his starting line-up – Jermain Defoe took over from the suspended Morelos up front while Andy Halliday replaced Borna Barisic at left back.
You would have thought after Rangers’ previous visit to Ayrshire they would have known better than to make slack cross field passes or dally too long on the ball. Doing so on the artificial surface at Rugby Park last month, after all, had gifted their opponents their goals in a league game they lost 2-1.
Yet, the visitors did both in just the third minute to present their hosts with an unexpected early chance. Ross McCrorie failed to control a poor ball from Daniel Candeias and Conor McAleny nipped in and robbed him of possession. He shot, though, flew over.
McGregor did well to block a Chris Burke free-kick eight minutes later after Ryan Jack scythed down Stephen O’Donnell.
Rangers struggled to gain a foothold in the game, in the all-important midfield area in particular. Gary Dicker, Power and Mulumbu quickly stamped their authority on proceedings. Scott Arfield, Jack and McCrorie lacked the same intensity and physicality.
Ryan Kent and Candeias, though, were lively and looked dangerous whenever they got on the ball. Not that it happened enough for their manager’s or supporters’ liking. But Kent did well to pinch the ball off O’Donnell and lay the ball back to Arfield in the Kilmarnock area in the 14th minute.
His team mate’s shot was inadvertently handled on the deck by Kirk Broadfoot and Muir had no hesitation in awarding the penalty. James Tavernier, who had netted three times from the spot in his side’s previous two games, stepped forward to take it. But his attempt was easily denied by the outstretched legs of goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann.
Kilmarnock continued to dominate. How they didn’t manage to take the lead after a Chris Burke corner in the 28th minute is anybody’s guess. They certainly had numerous attempts to open the scoring. Mulumbu had a shot cleared off the line by Halliday before Rangers cleared the danger.
Arfield had a through ball to Defoe intercepted by Greg Taylor five minutes before half-time. The front man did what he could with the limited service he received from his team mates. But Rangers definitely missed the more mobile Morelos. “They (Defoe and Morelos) are two different types of player,” said Gerrard. “They are both very strong in front of goal, but they are very different, so we have to adapt to whoever is leading the line.”
Power and McCrorie both required medical attention following a nasty clash of heads in the 54th minute. The latter continued, but the former wasn’t allowed to remain on the park and was replaced by Kris Boyd.
The loss of Power was keenly felt by Kilmarnock. Their rivals enjoyed the better of the second-half without, it must be said, creating a great deal in the final third. Defoe got on the end of a McCrorie delivery in the 79th minute, but his shot drifted wide of the left post.
Clarke put on Rory McKenzie for the excellent McAleny and Liam Miller took over from the outstanding Burke. Gerrard, meanwhile, replaced Arfield with Steven Davis and Defoe with Kyle Lafferty. None of the substitutes, though, could break the deadlock.