Raith Rovers 1 Rangers 2
Raith Rovers have no right to expect a result against a club the size of Rangers, let alone twice in a fortnight, but Friday night’s 2-1 defeat at Stark’s Park was a little disappointing nonetheless.
On the back of a seven-game unbeaten run and the heroic Scottish Cup win at Ibrox, there was every reason to hope that Grant Murray’s men could achieve a dream double over a beleagured Gers side.
But that never looked likely on a bitterly cold night in Kirkcaldy as Rangers upped their game considerably from the February 8 cup tie, while Raith failed to live up to the performance they gave that day.
Any attempt to repeat their successful Ibrox formula was thwarted by hesitant defending and slack passing that allowed Rangers to dominate possession and create enough chances to win the game more convincingly.
Admittedly against superior players, Rovers also struggled to win their individual battles - it’s not often you see Dougie Hill beaten in the air as often as he was by Kris Boyd - and this was one of many head-to-heads that Rovers lost on the night.
While Raith failed to reproduce the quality of football displayed in the cup win, there was no shortage of graft, which is a common theme of performances at the moment, and on another night this effort might have been enough to snatch a point.
Rovers battled to stay in the game and Ryan Conroy’s 70th minute goal - against the run of play - led to a spirited late push for an equaliser, although in truth, Rangers’ suspect defence was never put under enough sustained pressure for the home side to warrant anything from the game.
In the end, Rangers overall dominance showed that for all their troubles on and off the park, they still have a squad more than capable of comfortably out-classing a mid-table Championship side, if they put in the work.
There were early warning signs that Rangers were in the mood to avenge their cup defeat with Nicky Clark twice going close from the edge of the area, while Boyd looped a header onto the top of David McGurn’s crossbar in the 18th minute.
Rovers were camped in their own half but a rare forage forward highlighted Rangers’ weaknesses at the back as Marius Zaliukas misjudged a bounce to let Mark Stewart in, and he would have almost certainly scored but for a last-ditch saving tackle from Sebastian Faure.
A goal looked far more likely at the other end but it took a wonder strike to break the deadlock on 35 minutes as Rangers tied Raith in knots with some simple ball retention in midfield, and when the space opened up for Andrew Murdoch 25 yards out, the youngster sent a stunning rocket shot into the top corner of the net.
Rangers’ half-time lead was merited, and there was a let off for the Raith defence inside a minute of the second half as the back four stopped to appeal for an offside flag, while the onside Clark chested a ball down and volleyed just wide.
The pressure continued and Rangers doubled their lead on 56 minutes as Paul Watson’s brilliant block to deny Lee Wallace’s attempt saw the ball break kindly for Boyd, who fresh-aired at first, only for another lucky bounce to give him another chance and this time he toe-poked it past McGurn with the aid of a slight deflection.
With Rangers still pressing forward and creating chance upon chance, perhaps keen to avoid a repeat of the confidence damaging 4-0 and 6-1 league defeats earlier in the season, Rovers boss Murray seemed to indicate a damage limitation approach as he introduced Liam Fox for Kevin Moon to try and steady Raith’s overrun midfield.
But out of the blue, on the 70-minute mark, Raith made a breakthrough as Conroy, who along with opposite winger Grant Anderson had spent most of the match doubling up in the full back position, found himself at the edge of the Gers box.
He raced onto a Mark Stewart’s pass to send a first-time effort towards goal that deflected off the boot of Lee Wallace and looped over the helpless ex-Raith stopper Lee Robinson to give the home side a lifeline.
Raith now threw a little more caution to the wind and Ross Callachan’s superbly executed volley - he watched a ball drop out the sky and caught it flush form 20 yards - deserved a goal but Robinson was equal to it.
Recent late goals against the likes of Cowdenbeath, Hibs and Falkirk meant that there was still hope, and the home fans tried to encourage their team forward, but the passing and movement just wasn’t sharp enough to sustain any pressure.
Substitute Lewis Vaughan was introduced in the 91st minute for his first taste of action since November - far too late to make any impact - but there was still time for Christian Nade to send an ambitious bicycle kick high into the stand before the full-time whistle sounded.
After some big performances in big games in recent weeks, perhaps this was just a hurdle too far for the Raith players, who under performed on the night, but still deserve great credit for turning their season around with a seven-game unbeaten run.
The team needs to regroup and ensure that there is no slip in standards from here on in. With a Scottish Cup quarter-final in Inverness on the horizon, and an outside chance of snatching fourth place, there is plenty still to play.
Raith Rovers: McGurn, Thomson, Watson, Hill, Anderson (Vaughan 90), Moon (Fox 71), Stewart, Callachan, Conroy, McKeown, Nade.
Subs not used: Cuthbert, Scott, Robertson, Matthews, Barr.
Rangers: Robinson, Faure, McCulloch (McGregor 45), Zaliukas, Wallace, Murdoch, Hutton, Clark (Shiels 87), Vuckic, Law, Boyd (Daly 90).
Subs not used: Simonsen, Smith, Black, Templeton.
Referee: Craig Charleston