James Tavernier’s scintillating second-half free-kick gave Rangers a hard-fought 2-1 win over Livingston in their Scottish Premiership opener at the Tony Macaroni Arena. Striker Joel Nouble shocked last season’s Europa League finalists when he gave the home side the lead with a fine finish in the fifth minute.
David Martindale’s side resolutely defended their lead as the Gers pressure grew in intensity into the second half. But Rangers substitute Scott Arfield levelled with a glancing header in the 72nd minute before captain Tavernier quickly curled in a free-kick to the relief of the away fans whose nerves were frayed.
Rangers will travel to Belgium for the first leg of their Champions League third qualifying round clash with Union Saint Gilloise on Tuesday with more optimism than they might have had they not grabbed those two crucial goals in two minutes.
It had been a fraught afternoon for Rangers fans who saw Jon McLaughlin preferred to Allan McGregor in goal. There were competitive debuts for John Souttar, Tom Lawrence, and Antonio Colak for Rangers while goalkeeper Shamal George was making his Livi debut after recently signing from Colchester.
The game was paused in the opening minutes by referee Don Robertson to allow some smoke from away fans’ pyrotechnics to clear from the Livingston box. However, the enthusiasm of the Gers supporters was soon dampened when the home side took the lead with a route one goal.
George sent a long ball up the park, captain Nicky Devlin headed on and Souttar failed to deal with the danger as Nouble moved behind him to lob McLaughlin from inside the box for his goal for the club.
Rangers’ response was predictable and frantic as a series of crosses and free-kicks into the packed penalty area were repelled by a well-organised Livi defence. Livingston should have doubled their lead in the 27th minute when Andrew Shinnie’s searching free-kick found Ayo Obileye unmarked but he headed straight into the arms of McLaughlin.
Rangers resumed their dominance but the goal would not come. Malik Tillman, on loan from Bayern Munich, replaced Scott Wright for the start of the second half to make his club debut and he helped the visitors step up the pressure.
However, Livingston held firm and maintained a threat on the break, with the height and power of Nouble proving a handful. Colak had the ball in the net in the 54th minute but was ruled offside before Tillman had a close-range drive saved by George.
John Lundstram, Tillman, Tavernier and Borna Barisic all came close as Rangers kept pushing before Arfield, who was brought on with James Sands for Souttar and Glen Kamara in the 67th minute, headed in a cross from Ryan Kent.
It was a full turnaround two minutes later when Tavernier curled in a free-kick from just outside the box. Rangers’ relief was palpable with Livi’s commendable efforts ultimately counting for nothing.