Rangers and Heart of Midlothian fought out an entertaining draw in the opening match of the 2011/2012 SPL season with each side enjoying a half of dominance at a sun backed Ibrox Stadium.
As Rangers unfurled the champions’ flag and kicked off Ally McCoist’s reign in charge it was the side from the capital that were most enterprising taking a deserved half-time lead through David Obua before a rejuvenated Rangers pinned Hearts back for periods of the second-half drawing level through Steven Naismith.
In his first competitive game as manager McCoist brought in Kirk Broadfoot for the suspended David Weir while Juan Manuel Ortiz made his debut in an attacking midfield trio which supported Nikica Jelavic. Jim Jefferies set out his Hearts team in a 4-2-3-1 formation, giving Danny Grainger, Mehdi Taouil and John Sutton their first competitive outings in a maroon jersey.
Both teams settled into the match sharply, showing no signs of close-season rustiness and after five minutes David Templeton came in off the left hand side to meet a pass but the ball had too much pace for the winger who is no slouch himself.
Up the other end of the park Jelavic responded with what would have been an early contender for goal of the season, and one which would unlikely be bettered. He collected a lofted pass on his chest and in one swift movement attempted an acrobat bicycle which dropped harmlessly past Marian Kello’s far post.
Moments later Andy Webster who was an injury doubt before the game limped off to be replaced by Adrian Mrowiec. The Polish midfielder went into his favoured defensive midfield position with Eggert Jonsson dropping into centre back alongside Marius Zaliukas.
Fifteen minutes in and the SPL had the first goal of the season as an unmarked David Obua leaped to meet Danny Grainger’s dangerous inswinging corner, leaving Allan McGregor in the Rangers goal helpless and sending the band of Hearts fans stationed in the far corner delirious.
The Ugandan was stationed in an attacking midfield role and was causing the Rangers backline all kinds of problems as he picked up intelligent positions off Lee McCulloch and in front of the home sides backline; always making himself available for a pass, linking up with Ian Black and Templeton – ably supported by Grainger – as Hearts zipped the ball around the lush Ibrox pitch with confidence
Templeton almost made it 2-0 latching onto a Sutton flick from a Grainger long throw and squeezing past two Rangers defender only to be thwarted by McGregor who had narrowed the angle.
The home side struggled to insert fluidity into their attack. Ortiz in particular saw a lot of the ball on the left-hand side but found little change out of Aussie Ryan McGowan who marshalled the Spaniard well.
As the clocked ticked towards 45 minutes the Gorgie side once again found themselves with the perfect opportunity to double their lead. Templeton was proving troublesome for Whittaker and Bougherra and he was involved again, cutting inside and dissecting the Rangers back four with a precision pass to play in goal scorer Obua. He looked likely to score but as McGregor advanced the Ugandan could only blast high into the side netting.
The miss almost proved costly as Rangers threatened what would have been a harsh equaliser on the Edinburgh side. Naismith looked ready to pounce on an expert Jelavic lay-off only for Ian Black to appear from nowhere to block what would have been a certain goal. Black, not well liked at Ibrox, had been everywhere in the first half.
The second half saw a different Rangers team to the tepid side in the first half. In the space of ten minutes Rangers could have been leading 4-1. Broadfoot was the first to go close with a glancing header before Steven Davis, finding space that wasn’t there in the first half, played a neat one-two with Jelavic, taking out the Hearts backline in the process. But his finish did not accompany the build-up, meekly prodding an attempt which Kello, expecting a fiercer shot, tipped and then covered the loose ball.
It was then the turn of Naismith. Ortiz began to find his footing in the game, beating McGowan and firing in a low cross which reached the back post where Naismith was waiting only to blaze the glorious opportunity over the bar. His second chance was slightly more difficult as he once again found himself on the end of an Ortiz cross but could not direct his headed effort towards goal.
It was third time lucky on 58 minutes for Naismith and the Ibrox crowd. McGowan, enjoying a fine afternoon at right-back, was caught in possession near the half way line which allowed Rangers to break. Sasa Papac exposed the space McGowan occupied and sent in a teasing cross which Naismith timed perfectly and headed across goal and into the corner.
Hearts were finding it difficult to stem the blue tide and their case was not helped when Templeton had to make way for Stephen Elliott having picked up a knock to the face late in the first half.
The goal seemed to waken the away side up and the contest lessened in intensity – possibly something to do with the heat and tired legs.
Both sides had a chance each to collect an opening day three points. First of all Obua fired a volley from the corner off the box towards the top corner having met a Sutton knock-down, however McGregor was more than equal with springing stop to turn the shot over the bar.
With the seconds ticking down Hearts were almost undone with a quick one-two on the edge of the box between Papac and Naismith sending the former through on goal. But the defender finished like a defender, hardly troubling Kello. Ending a chance laden and exciting encounter.
Scotzine Man of the Match: Ryan McGowan
Rangers: McGregor, Whittaker, Bougherra, Broadfoot, Papac, Davis, Edu, McCulloch, Ortiz (Wylde 75), Naismith, Jelavic. Subs not used: Alexander, Fleck, Healy, Hemmings, Bendiksen, Wallace.
Hearts: Kello, McGowan, Webster (Mrowiec 8), Zaliukas, Grainger, Black (Stevenson 80), Jonsson, Obua, Taouil, Templeton (Elliott 50), Sutton. Subs not used: Balogh, Robinson, G.Smith, Novikovas.
Referee: Callum Murray
Written by Joel Sked @ Ibrox Stadium