This was a Rangers display, although dominant throughout in terms of possession and a perfectly steady opening to their defence of the Premiership title, easily split into two parts. Before Ianis Hagi got halved in two by a wild tackle from Adam Lewis. And after.
Before that 13th minute bonecruncher, which eventually resulted in Hagi’s removal from the action on the half-hour, the Ibrox side had been quite irresistible. Fast, incisive, relentless, they put Livi on the back foot from the off and threatened to cut their legs off completely.
Captain James Tavernier was rampaging up the flank in terrifying fashion, the movement and rotation of Ryan Kent and Hagi in the wider attacking positions left the opposition chasing shadows, same goes for Joe Aribo and Glen Kamara in midfield.
Steven Gerrard’s Rangers made the perfect start to their Scottish Premiership title defence
Rangers (4-3-3): McLaughlin; Tavernier, Goldson, Balogun, Bassey; Aribo (Lundstram 64), Davis, Kamara; Kent, Sakala (Roofe 71), Hagi (Wright 30).
Subs not used: McGregor, Itten, Simpson, Patterson.
Livingston (4-5-1): Stryjek; McMillan, Fitzwater, Obileye, Lewis (Kabia 55); Forrest, Holt, Pittman, Sibbald (Devlin 64), Penrice; Anderson (Hamilton 68).
Subs not used: Barden, Montano, Reilly, Kelly.
Booked: Lewis, Sibbald, Devlin, Penrice, Forrest.
Referee: John Beaton.
Hagi scored on eight minutes with a sharp finish from an opening gifted by some dreadful defending at a set-piece. There had been several other chances created too. It looked like it might end up a cricket score.
And yet, after the 22-year-old had been scythed down by a tackle that could easily have earned Lewis more than just a yellow card on a different day, the intensity dipped. It became too slow, too tippy-tappy, pretty short on inspiration.
Scott Wright, who replaced Hagi, did lift the atmosphere 12 minutes from time with a brilliant finish from a messy period of play and, with Livi down to 10 men after injury to Jaze Kabia, substitute Kemar Roofe wrapped a club record 20th straight home win and a 40th game unbeaten in the top-flight for Rangers after the ball broke his way and Livi slept.
However, the keenly anticipated answers to some interesting questions on how Steven Gerrard’s team will evolve after last season’s triumphant league campaign will have to wait.
Gerrard feels Fashion Sakala should change their dynamic as an attacking force. The Zambian plays on the shoulder, has lightning pace and is an exciting prospect in conjunction with Kent’s speed elsewhere.
Will he be a proper alternative to Alfredo Morelos, absent yesterday as he completes quarantine, as a centre-forward? Not necessarily on the evidence here. He barely touched the ball. Only once did he get it in a wide position and ask real questions when stretching the legs. That role on the right of the main attacker seems a more natural fit.
With Morelos still out for the trip to Malmo on Champions League qualifying duty in midweek and Roofe suspended, he may have to be the central man again, though. Bearing that in mind, Wright providing a goal after coming off the bench might just be enough to see him propelled into the starting line-up should Hagi fail to make it.
One thing that definitely looks like changing this term is the frequency with which the goalkeepers will be rotated. Jon McLaughlin, who didn’t have a shot on target to deal with against a Livingston with clear work to do after bringing in 12 new players, started yesterday ahead of Allan McGregor. McGregor, who will play in Sweden, hits 40 this season and it is evident that Gerrard sees a need to give him greater rest to keep his body in check.
As for pre-season discussions over fitting Tavernier and Nathan Patterson into the team, that remains an unsolved puzzle with the youngster being left on the bench. The effect of John Lundstram on the midfield – and how it will affect the balance of an already strong area – is another matter for another day.
Rangers’s next game sees them face Malmo in the first leg of their Champions League qualifier
The 27-year-old Englishman showed in his half-hour appearance from the bench that he is strong and physical and he made it clear in pre-season that he isn’t scared to have a crack at goal either. Speculation over the future of Kamara may have to settle, however, before Gerrard gets his mix exactly right in the engine room as well.
These are more talking points than reasons for an inquest, in truth. This Rangers side, whoever plays, should be good enough to win the league given the state of affairs across the city of Glasgow at Celtic. Another talking point before this curtain-raiser, which began with a minute’s silence for the late Ally Dawson, was whether or not supporters would universally accept the side taking the knee. The roars as they did must have thrilled Tavernier, who felt the need to make a post-match plea for no booing, and his team-mates.
Certainly, that noise level didn’t drop when the action got going – with Tavernier sending a shot over on four minutes and Hagi breaking the deadlock just a little later.
The former Fiorentina player spoke before the game about his desire to improve his goal ratio. In all competitions for Rangers last term, he hit the net eight times while providing a more than commendable 15 assists.
This was certainly an encouraging early example of turning words into actions, although, it has to be said, Livingston gave him every opportunity. James Penrice, in particular.
Hagi had won the free-kick on the right flank, being fouled by Lewis. When Tavernier flighted the dead-ball to the back post, the Romanian was left in splendid isolation.
Gerrard feels Fashion Sakala should change their dynamic as an attacking force
Penrice, clearly responsible for monitoring any developing hazards there, had glanced round in his direction. He surely must have spotted him standing on his own. The problem is, he didn’t take action early enough.
Hagi trapped the ball under his left foot and moved it onto his right. Penrice, having woken up to the danger by then, slid in along with Scott Pittman in spectacular – if completely ineffective – fashion and left the path clear for Hagi to shoot.
Just to make matters worse for the visitors, the ball then took the slightest of deflections off the foot of the grounded Jack Fitzwater before flying into keeper Max Stryjek’s top right-hand corner.
From there, though, the chances kind of dried up. With Hagi left observing from the stand, Kent forced a save from Stryjek with a poor sidefooted on 59 minutes and Wright saw the Pole deny his looping header 20 minutes from time. However, until the former Aberdeen man intervened and staked that claim for Malmo, this game against a Livi side that became more organised while remaining pretty toothless looked like petering out.
There was no hard evidence yet of exactly how Gerrard will change things up this season
Tavernier sparked off the move, of sorts, with a ball inside. Kent tried a shot that spun into the air off a Livi boot and Tavernier got in the thick of things to get his head to it and send it into Wright’s path on the right.
Fractured as the build-up may have been, the finish was divine. Wright caught the ball with the outside of his right boot and it bent beautifully into the far corner.
Roofe then put the cherry on the cake at the end when an attempted clearance from Ayo Obileye sparked a bout of bagatelle in the area and ended with the ex-Leeds man having a clear opportunity to convert from a matter of yards.
No alarms. No surprises. But, yet, no hard evidence yet of exactly how Gerrard will change things up and execute the plan to show last year’s heroics were only a taste of things to come.