A makeshift Aberdeen suffered their first away league defeat of 2020 with a 4-0 reverse against Rangers at Ibrox.
Goals from Ryan Kent and Kemar Roofe put Steven Gerrard’s side two ahead at the interval before two goals inside the opening eight minutes of the second half from Scott Arfield and James Tavernier ended any hopes of a Dons comeback.
It was a third defeat of the campaign for the Dons and a second against Rangers following their opening day loss at Pittodrie.
The victory moves Rangers 11 points clear of second-place Celtic having played two games more, while Aberdeen remain four points adrift of the Hoops.
Prior to the match, Aberdeen boss Derek McInnes admitted he was “disappointed and angry” after being deprived of three players following the Scotland under-21 Covid outbreak and questioned whether the Scottish FA had done enough to protect the players.
Dons midfielder Ross McCrorie, who was ineligible to play against his parent club Rangers, was one of three players who returned from last week’s game in Greece with the virus along with his brother and Livingston goalkeeper Robby McCrorie and Celtic’s David Turnbull.
Lewis Ferguson and Connor McLennan, who were both set to start yesterday, are also self-isolating. They, along with McCrorie, will miss the midweek trip to Hamilton and Saturday’s Betfred Cup tie against St Mirren in Paisley.
It made a difficult assignment at Ibrox all the more daunting.
The Gers have been in imperious form at home this season, winning all nine of their matches at Ibrox and were yet to concede a goal on their own turf in the league ahead of this one. Hamilton Accies were thumped 8-0 in Govan in Steven Gerrard’s side’s last match before the international break.
Not the ideal time for the Dons to be deprived key personnel.
McInnes made four changes from the side that defeated Hibernian 2-0 on November 6 with Shay Logan, Greg Leigh and Funso Ojo replacing the absent McLennan, McCrorie and Ferguson, while Ryan Edmondson stepped in for Scott Wright.
The hosts made two alterations with Allan McGregor starting in goal ahead of Jon McLaughlin, while Alfredo Morelos was selected to lead the line ahead of Jermain Defoe.
The Dons lined up in a 4-4-2 formation with a midfield pairing of Jamaica international Greg Leigh and Funso Ojo, who was making his first start since being substituted at half-time of a 3-0 home defeat by Motherwell in September.
Joe Lewis was making his 200th appearance for the Dons and he was called into action with only three minutes on the clock when he produced an excellent save to deny Kent the opener.
The Reds struggled to cope with the home side’s movement and speed of passing and found it difficult to gain a foothold and ease the pressure on Lewis’ goal.
It was only a matter of time before Rangers opened the scoring and it came courtesy of a moment of quality from Kent who nutmegged Ojo before curling home from distance with the aid of a deflection and the post.
Slowly but surely Aberdeen came back into the game with Sam Cosgrove denied at the near post by McGregor before Ryan Hedges darted clear but again the former Scotland number one was equal to the powerful attempt.
Then, just as the Dons looked to be settling down, they were caught with a sucker-punch when Kemar Roofe glided past two challenges before his left-footed shot squirmed past Lewis.
The Gers had the ball in the net for a third time when a Joe Aribo shot hit Roofe on the back and fell for Scott Arfield to tap home but the offside flag spared the Dons.
Rangers continued to look dangerous after the break with Morelos picking out Arfield with a smart pass but Andy Considine made a brave block.
But, only four minutes into the second half, another Arfield attempt took a wicked deflection off Shay Logan to leave Lewis helpless and Rangers three ahead.
It got even worse for the Dons when the hosts went 4-0 up from the penalty spot after 53 minutes after a foul by Considine on Leon Balogun with Tavernier slotting home from 12 yards.
Rangers had chances for a fifth with Tavernier going close with a looping header before Lewis made an excellent stop to keep out a Connor Goldson header.