Alfredo Morelos was the hat-trick hero as Rangers advanced to the quarter-finals of the Scottish League Cup with a 3-1 victory over Kilmarnock at Rugby Park on Sunday afternoon.
The victory at one of the most difficult venues in the Scottish game came at a cost however, with Jamie Murphy stretchered off with a knee injury.
Steven Gerrard made three changes from Maribor with Wes Foderingham, Borna Barisic and Ryan Kent coming in for Allan McGregor, Daniel Candeias and Ryan Jack.
Rangers – wearing the same all-orange strip they had worn in Slovenia – settled quickly on the artificial surface, and should have taken the lead in the seventh minute when James Tavernier and Ryan Kent combined on the right, the latter’s cutback finding Alfredo Morelos who stabbed the ball goal-wards only to see Stephen O’Donnell scramble the ball away to safety.
Five minutes later at the other end former Ranger Chris Burke tested Wes Foderingham with a curling, dipping free-kick from an acute angle that the ‘keeper turned over.
The Ibrox men suffered yet another injury blow on 17 minutes when Jamie Murphy was stretchered off after appearing to collapse when running for the ball alongside another ex-Ibrox man Kirk Broadfoot, his studs apparently catching on the pitch.
Killie were dangerous at dead-balls – another Burke free-kick from a wide angle nine minutes later almost caught out Foderingham, the ‘keeper getting a hand to the ball to scoop it wide of the target low down at his left-hand side. It was a superb save – and arguably a game-changer.
The opening goal when it arrived just before the half-hour mark however came at the other end – Candeias linking on the right with Tavernier who sent over a pinpoint cross for Morelos to head into the net.
Kilmarnock continued to threaten – another Burke dead-ball, this time a corner, found Broadfoot at the far post, his header going over after striking the top of the crossbar then shortly afterwards Jordan Jones, an Ibrox transfer target last season, got to the bye-line before cutting the ball back across the face of goal, with the inrushing Kris Boyd just out of reach.
With the interval fast approaching Morelos added a second goal to give Rangers a commanding half-time lead – the Colombian striker shrugging off the challenge of Broadfoot to move onto a Tavernier pass and sweep the ball into the far corner of the net.
The visitors appeared well in command but six minutes after the restart the deficit was reduced when a Jones cross flicked on by Kris Boyd was knocked into his own net by Barisic.
That goal gave the Ayrshire men renewed heart – although Rangers continued to look the likelier. Indeed, Morelos almost grabbed a third goal when released through the middle by Scott Arfield, his eighteen-yard drive turned over by home ‘keeper Daniel Bachmann.
With the midway point in the second-half rapidly approaching it was debutant Bachmann who twice kept his side in the game with fine saves, the first when he turned wide Arfield’s low drive from the edge of the area following a Candeias break down the right, then from the resultant Kent corner he clawed away a Morelos header.
Alfredo would not be denied his hat-trick however – converting a low cross from Tavernier in the 74th minute from close range after Arfield had released the full-back on the right.
Killie refused to give up – three minutes later from yet another Burke free-kick Kris Boyd directed a header on target only to see Foderingham scoop the ball clear.
Soon afterwards Bachmann denied both Kent and Ovie Ejaria in quick succession – and there was no way back for Steve Clarke’s men.
Best for Rangers were of course hat-trick hero Alfredo Morelos, Wes Foderingham, James Tavernier and Scott Arfield.
Rangers will now host Ayr United in the last eight of the competition.
Kilmarnock: Bachman; O’Donnell, S. Boyd (Ndjoli 80), Broadfoot, Taylor; Burke, Power (Wilson 80), Dicker, Jones; K. Boyd, Brophy
Unused Subs: MacDonald, Waters, Graham, Kiltie, Camer
Rangers: Foderingham; Tavernier, Goldson, Katic, Barisic; Kent, Ejaria, Arfield (McCrorie 78), Halliday, Murphy (Candeias 17); Morelos (Sadiq 78)
Unused Subs: Alnwick, Jack, Flanagan, Middleton
Referee: Nick Walsh