What a way to set about making a name in your own right. And on the old man’s birthday, too.
Just as it seemed Rangers’ title hopes were about to fade to grey, Ianis Hagi marked his full debut with a challenge-saving strike. Six minutes were all that was left when the ball dropped to his right foot inside the area. A precise, angled finish zipped beyond Ofir Marciano and sent a wave of jubilant relief surging around Ibrox.
Dad Gheroghe was busy blowing out candles after turning 55 on Wednesday. Having already hailed Rangers as the right club to advance his son’s career, Romania’s greatest-ever player would doubtless have been proud of the response delivered at his new team’s moment of greatest need.
Ianis Hagi roars with delight after scoring Rangers’ matchwinning goal against Hibernian
Hagi watches on as his low angled strike fizzes towards the bottom corner of the goal
The 21-year-old was quickly mobbed by his team-mates after his 84th-minute winner
With Celtic cruising to victory at Fir Park, Hagi’s drive kept Steven Gerrard’s side seven points behind the reigning champions with a game in hand. Time will tell if it can be a turning point in a previously faltering challenge. But at least no further momentum has been lost.
Hagi was signed last week on loan from Genk until the end of the season, with Rangers holding an exclusive option to make the switch permanent. The fee will seem good value if the 21-year-old can continue to produce crucial interventions to follow this impact introduction.
He even managed to shift the spotlight away from Alfredo Morelos after the Colombian found himself at a translation storm not of his own making. Having received an apology from Sky Sports, Morelos was denied on several occasions by the impressive Marciano.
One of those saves came during five, tense added minutes at the end. Referee Bobby Madden, barracked by the home fans throughout, showed Hibs assistant Jon Potter a yellow card as tempers again frayed on the touchline. Potter and Rangers coach Tom Culshaw were both sent off in December’s reverse fixture in December, leading to SFA charges that will be considered on Thursday.
The breakthrough Hagi delivered was just reward for the way Gerrard’s men responded to a first-half goal from Hibs defender Paul Hanlon. George Edmundson levelled ahead of the break before an onslaught ensued for much of the second period. That would have counted for nothing without another goal, however, meaning Hagi deserved all the acclaim that came his way when he was replaced by Glen Kamara.
For Jack Ross and Hibs, it was painful conclusion. Unable to sustain the promise shown in those opening exchanges, they remain in sixth place – a point ahead of Kilmarnock.
The win sees Steven Gerrard’s side remain seven points behind Celtic with a game in hand too
Saturday’s stodgy stalemate against Aberdeen prompted Gerrard into a trio of alterations. As well as Hagi making a first start, captain James Tavernier made his first appearance of 2020 after recovering fully from an appendix procedure. George Edmundson replaced Niko Katic at centre back after the Croatian’s wayward weekend display. Matt Polster and Glen Kamara were the other two players dropped to the bench.
A fast start was sought to try and recapture the potency Rangers had so freely displayed prior to the winter break. It very nearly arrived through a man persistently at the centre of attention.
Latching onto a pass from Tavernier inside the third minute, Morelos got a fair bit of power behind a low angled drive. Marciano was equal to it, however. Thrusting out a glove, the Israeli goalkeeper propelled the ball behind for a corner kick.
Ibrox hoped that would be the signal for an onslaught. But an edgy support was left disappointed. Initially at least. Frustration rose out of the stands long before Rangers were staring at a deficit.
Conceding goals, not scoring them, has been Hibs’ issue. Even so, there was a solid organisation about the visitors for much of the opening period. Wingers Joe Newell and Martin Boyle worked to protect their full-backs by tracking Tavernier and Borna Barisic deep into their own territory. With Scott Allan dropping in as a third central midfielder when out of possession, they summoned enough bodies to regularly stifle space.
Paul Hanlon gave Hibernian the lead on Wednesday night with a close-range effort
All the changes Ross made came with defence in mind. Recent signing Paul McGinn made his first start at right-back, while Adam Jackson was introduced at centre-back. In front of them, ex-Rangers man Steven Whittaker was asked to provide diligence as one of two holding midfielders.
The tweaks served their primary purpose but didn’t diminish the attacking threat offered on the break during the first half.
An inkling was seen after 12 minutes. Stephane Omeonga found Allan, who released Newell with one of his trademark reverse passes. Allan McGregor had to stick out his right leg to prevent the Englishman from finding the net.
Allan got out his slide-rule again to send McGinn scampering in ahead of Barisic. He won a corner that Edmundson repelled ahead of Doidge. But Rangers were looking vulnerable.
When Edmundson then felled Whittaker to earn a booking, Allan slung the free-kick deep into their penalty area. Doidge got the first header on it before Whittaker jumped in front of McGregor. The Hibs man had an arm raised but didn’t provide enough of an impediment – despite protests – for referee Madden to call an infringement. The ball broke for Hanlon to knock into the net.
It was a shock that stirred Rangers into life. Morelos had a pop from distance held by Marciano before Arfield fired wide after excellent hold-up play from Joe Aribo.
George Edmundson levelled things up for Rangers in first-half injury time at Ibrox
Then, in first half stoppage time, came the leveller after Tavernier supplied a free-kick from the right. Edmundson couldn’t connect properly with his first attempt, but Hibs were unable to clear. The centre back was given a second sniff and stuck away a left-foot finish with impressive accuracy.
Would it deflate Hibs? They certainly had to draw deep for breath as the second half began.
Hagi volleyed just wide off a Barisic cross. Then the Croatian delivered low for an Aribo flick that Marciano showed agility to save. Next, Aribo latched onto a Morelos lay-off but was blocked by Hanlon. A third opportunity for the Nigerian midfielder came when he hooked a Barisic corner over the bar.
This was the kind of intensity and incision Gerrard’s men required. Sustaining it was the obvious necessity.
Morelos rolled his marker to have shot expertly thwarted by Marciano beyond the hour mark. From the resulting corner, Edmundson’s stooping effort was cleared off the line by Jackson. A Hagi drive was subsequently smuggled away by Marciano.
With 20 minutes remaining, Gerrard withdrew Aribo for Greg Stewart in search of the finishing touch to so much pressure. But it was Hagi who stepped forward to provide it.
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