Alfredo Morelos drives Rangers through to League Cup final against Celtic
Rangers lie between Celtic and a 10th domestic honour in succession after Steven Gerrard’s team sealed a League Cup final berth with a comprehensive dismissal of Hearts. It is hardly delving into exaggeration to suggest the level of resistance Rangers may offer against their oldest foes could not be judged during a semi-final when the opposition was utterly abject.
If intense focus, naturally, will fall on whether Rangers can finally break the Celtic spell, next month’s showpiece also carries huge significance for Gerrard, who is seeking his first trophy as a manager. The Old Firm have not met in a final since March 2011; all that has come since – primarily financial meltdown at Ibrox – only intensifies desire in Glasgow’s blue half to alter the sense they are the city’s poor relations.
Rangers had not reached a cup final since 2016 before Hearts were swatted aside. Whereas Aberdeen twice knocked Gerrard’s men out of cups last season, this time Rangers were emphatic in their delivery.
“It shouldn’t be about me after a performance like that,” insisted Gerrard. “As Rangers manager you are under constant pressure, I have to accept that, but it’s what I came for. I came for challenges like today. At this club you can never be complacent because challenges come thick and fast.”
That said Hearts surrendered meekly. Just days after the sacking of Craig Levein and therefore under the guidance of a caretaker manager, Austin MacPhee, they looked bereft of belief. Hearts’ cause was not helped by the indiscipline of their experienced striker, Steven MacLean, who had to be substituted before half-time amid risk of dismissal.
What Hearts plan to do next regarding their managerial position will be more clear on Monday when the club’s owner, Ann Budge, is expected to meet the media.
Rangers’ dominance of the opening period had not been appropriately reflected before the unlikely stoppage-time intervention of Filip Helander. The Swedish centre-back eluded a static Hearts defence to stab home from Alfredo Morelos’s cut-back.
Morelos doubled the Rangers advantage within two minutes of the restart, James Tavernier this time the provider. Hearts did offer brief reply through Craig Wighton and Uche Ikpeazu headers but Rangers never appeared likely to surrender their lead.
Goal No 3 duly arrived via Morelos, who has scored 20 times this season, after terrific buildup trickery from Ryan Kent. Rangers did not add to their tally but were perfectly safe in the knowledge they didnot have to. Morelos commanded attention courtesy of his double but Steven Davis, the Northern Ireland captain, delivered a masterclass in midfield play.
“The performance was very strong,” Gerrard said. “We dominated the majority of that game. I don’t think anyone can say we don’t deserve to be in the final, we were excellent. There will be plenty of time to speak about the final, today is all about Rangers performing ever so well. The lads should enjoy this.”
That Gerrard gave his squad Monday off suggested enjoy it they will. The visit of Porto in the Europa League on Thursday felt like an afterthought; domestically, Rangers have eyes back on prizes.