Rangers 1 - 0 Hamilton: Candeias goal sends Rangers top of the table
Rangers reclaimed top spot on a day when the result was certainly more satisfying than their performance from manager Steven Gerrard’s perspective.
Daniel Candeias scored what proved to be the only goal of the game after just three minutes against a dogged Hamilton Accies side, ensuring the Ibrox men pounced on Celtic’s defeat to Hibs in this erratic and increasingly unpredictable title race.
Rangers now head the Premiership standings on goal difference from Kilmarnock, with a game in hand on the Rugby Park outfit. But this was an opportunity missed for Gerrard’s squad to significantly improve their goal difference in comparison to champions Celtic who are now a point behind them but have played a game less.
The absence of top scorer Alfredo Morelos, completing his most recent suspension, was keenly felt as Rangers failed to add to their tally.
Their eagerness to take advantage of Celtic’s setback at Easter Road earlier in the afternoon was immediately apparent and they should have gone ahead even before Candeias broke the deadlock.
With less than a minute on the clock, a misjudgement from Accies ‘keeper Gary Woods saw him needlessly concede the first of no less than 13 corners Rangers would have in the first half alone.
James Tavernier worked the set piece short with Scott Arfield on the left, the Rangers captain whipping in an inviting cross to the far post which picked out the unmarked Kyle Lafferty. It was the simplest of opportunities imaginable but the big striker contrived to steer his header against Woods’ left hand post from no more than a yard out.
Rangers didn’t have too long to rue the miss, however, and Lafferty played his part in the opener two minutes later. Eros Grezda made ground down the left and delivered a cross which found Lafferty. His shot was blocked in a congested penalty area, the ball breaking to Candeias who rammed home a firm left foot shot from around 10 yards.
It was one-way traffic in favour of the hosts but Gerrard would have been frustrated at the general lack of a cutting edge among his players which prevented them increasing their lead before the break.
They did not carve out as many clear-cut chances as their dominance of possession and territory should have produced. Their best opportunities came from either set pieces or defensive errors by Accies.
Candeias came close to scoring again when, after Borna Barisic’s corner was headed back across goal by Lafferty, his close range shot was blocked this time. A dreadful mistake by Aaron McGowan then presented Grezda with a sight of goal and the Albanian winger’s low shot was well saved by Woods.
As the procession of corners for Rangers continued, Woods was called into action again when he reacted well to touch over an inswinging cross-cum-shot from Tavernier.
Accies’ combative captain Darian MacKinnon, not a man noted for the subtlety or finesse of his work, picked up the first booking of the match six minutes before the interval for a cynical foul on Ryan Jack right on the edge of the penalty area.
Barisic planted the resulting free-kick right onto the head of Gareth McAuley but the veteran defender’s powerful effort was too close to Woods who made another decent save.
The pattern remained much the same after the break. The wasteful Lafferty missed Rangers’ first chance of the second half when he steered another fine delivery from Barisic the wrong side of Woods’ right hand post.
The home side were given a reminder of the potentially precarious nature of their slender lead when Scott McMann broke free on the counter attack for Accies, forcing Allan McGregor into his first save of the contest. The action was soon concentrated around the other penalty area again as Woods got down sharply to turn a Grezda shot wide.
Gerrard sought to bring freshness and greater variety to his attack when he made his first change just before the hour mark, replacing defensive midfielder Ross McCrorie with winger Glenn Middleton.
But a second goal continued to prove frustratingly elusive, Woods again coming to Accies rescue when he made his best save yet to claw away a close range header from Lafferty.
The closing stages proved far more nervy for Rangers than anyone could have predicted when they took their early lead. Accies finally discovered a degree of attacking ambition and it needed a timely intervention from Connor Goldson to deny substitute Fredrik Brustad as he looked to plunder an equaliser.
The final whistle, after three minutes of stoppage time, came as a relief to Rangers as they emerged from their recent mini-slump with a first win in four games.