better meddle...

wi' the de'il than the bairns o' fa'kirk

Match Report

Wednesday, 28th January, 2009

by Keith Jackson

CIS Cup: Rangers 3-0 Falkirk

WALTER SMITH returned a long-lost striker to the firing line last night - and it may just have bagged him more than a place in the first showpiece event of the season.

The clamour since the dismal draw at Aberdeen has been for the reinstatement of Kris Boyd to Rangers' attack and although he slotted home his obligatory goal to round off this semi-final romp, it was another forward who will have given the manager cause for some serious pondering as the campaign hurtles towards the closing straight.

Nacho Novo did more than score twice, force Falkirk into giving up an easy third for his prolific strike-mate and run off with the man of the match award. He presented his manager with a glaring alternative at this crucial stage in the SPL dogfight.

In fact, Novo's double took his tally for the season to seven goals in just eight starts and provided a reminder of what he might add to Smith's side for the run-in if he is given his chance to keep Kenny Miller on the sidelines.

Miller, who has also been struggling with injury, was given the night off at Hampden but it was his replacement who secured victory against a poor Falkirk side and booked Rangers areturn on March 15.

Given Novo was suspended for the final of this competition last season, banned again for the Scottish Cup Final and dropped for the UEFA Cup Final in Manchester, he will be in no hurry to give up his place in Smith's plans now he is back with such a bang.

The big surprise in the Falkirk side was in goal. John Hughes dropped Robert Olejnik and gave unknown Spaniard Dani Mallo his debut.

Smith paired Novo with the recalled Boyd and had Stevie Naismith in for young John Fleck.

Twice in the opening five minutes key members of the Rangers earguard dozed off - first Madjid Bougherra, then Kirk Broadfoot - but both times Allan McGregor came to the rescue.

The keeper used his left boot to block a Steve Lovell shot after Neil McCann had slipped him through without Bougherra noticing and then hurled himself to his left to keep out a curling shot from the same player after Broadfoot had been mugged by Patrick Cregg.

Even though more than 20,000 Rangers fans had made it to the old place, it felt almost as if they were here against their will.

Or perhaps they were simply sitting there waiting for an excuse to get angry.

Novo put paid to that notion just eight minutes into the match when, after hustling a corner out of the Falkirk defence, he popped up at the back post to bundle the ball home after Bougherra had got his head to Pedro Mendes' delivery.

Novo was off and running. His little legs would hardly stop scurrying from then on as he set about picking holes in a heavily-manned last line.

Rangers old boy McCann did pass up a half-chance in 22 minutes when he slipped at the vital moment after Cregg had played him through but this game was quickly getting away from Hughes and his players. Five minutes before the break it was gone for good as Novo notched his second.

This time the striker was released by a perfectly-weighted Steve Davis pass. Novo sprung on to it, blurring through a creaky defence before smashing a shot across Mallo and in at the keeper's right-hand post.

Novo almost fired a stunning third goal just two minutes into the second half when he darted forward down the right before letting rip from 25 yards.

Mallo hardly moved but the shot fizzed just wide of his left-hand post.

Bairns boss Hughes stood deep in conversation with sidekick Brian Rice attempting to puzzle out if they had a credible Plan B.

With an hour on the clock Falkirk's management finally made their move, switching to a 4-4-2, removing Lee Bullen and replacing the veteran defender with striker Michael Higdon for the final 30 minutes.

However, nothing much changed and Davis came close to putting this semi-final to bed when he poked just wide from 18 yards after a mazy solo charge that took him up to the edge of the Falkirk box.

Then Novo picked out Boyd with a delicious chip and the predator smashed a volley that skidded up off the greasy surface and grazed the roof of Mallo's net on its way over.

Time then for Hughes to come up with Plan C.

Off went Cregg and on went another hitman, Mark Stewart, as the Bairns tried a three-pronged attack to unsettle the opposition.

Like his two previous game plans, it didn't work.

Rangers boss Smith replaced the exhausted Naismith with Fleck for the final 13 minutes and captain Barry Ferguson then limped off late on with Lee McCulloch taking over in the centre of midfield.

He arrived in time to celebrate goal No.3 with his team-mates.

Novo ran forward to harass Mallo on the edge of the area and forced him into giving the ball up to Boyd who was left with the empty net at his mercy.

It was all way too easy for Scotland's top scorer and that goal summed up the way Rangers had strolled through to a game against either Celtic or Dundee United.