Motherwell missed an opportunity to capitalise against a 10-man Rangers as the visitors ran out 3-1 winners at Fir Park.
Scott Wright opened the scoring early in the first half before his team-mate Leon Balogun saw red for a wild and dangerous tackle on Dean Cornelius.
Ross Tierney’s header 10 minutes from half-time put ‘Well on the front foot but Wright’s second two minutes into the second half knocked the air out of Graham Alexander’s team, before James Tavernier’s penalty just after the hour mark killed the tie.
Motherwell’s first task in the top six of the cinch Premiership came two weeks on from a dramatic late clincher at Livingston.
After two commendable draws at Ibrox this season, the men in claret and amber were hoping to go one better at Fir Park and avenge Rangers’ crushing win back in October.
The suspended Kevin van Veen was replaced by Tierney in the starting side, with Juhani Ojala replacing the injured Sondre Solholm at the back.
‘Well started brightly and the front three in particular were in the faces of the Rangers rearguard early on, trying to force a mistake.
The first opening came ‘Well’s way after six minutes. A quick break on the right and cross from Shields was dummied by Efford allowing Tierney a glimpse of goal. As he was edged aside by Balogun at the edge of the box the ball fell for Sean Goss but his drive was deflected high into the air.
Four minutes later a quick break from the visitors almost produced the opening goal. Fashion Sakala, not for the first time, raced toward the home box before feeding the ball to Amad Diallo. His low shot beat Liam Kelly but Jake Carroll was perfectly placed to block the net bound effort.
The breakthrough was only delayed four minutes.
A clash of heads saw Ricki Lamie and Balogun watching from the touchline as Tavernier whipped a short corner beyond the far post. When Connor Goldson headed it back across the goal line it was destined for the inrushing Scott Wright. Kelly’s leap and touch almost prevented the ball reaching the Rangers’ forward but the ball dropped agonisingly over the line to put the Ibrox men ahead.
Quick feet from Callum Slattery at the edge of the Gers’ box created space for him to fire in a low shot which Allan McGregor, at full stretch pushed the ball round his right-hand post.
The next piece of neat footwork came from Cornelius after 28 minutes. But after the ‘Well teenager danced past two opponents tight on the right touchline he was brought to an abrupt halt by Balogun’s hefty and reckless lunge. Nick Walsh immediately produced a red card reducing Rangers to 10 men for the remaining hour.
A minute later the visitor’s demanded parity when Ojala’s sliding challenge sent Wright sprawling to the turf. On this occasion, the referee felt that a yellow was sufficient punishment for the ‘Well defender.
For the Rangers’ fans housed in the Tommy McLean stand, for the first time this season filled to its capacity, frustration was compounded in the 35th minute when the Fir Park men grabbed the equaliser.
Shields did well to win the ball on the right and when the ball was worked to the other side of the Gers’ box, Carroll’s cross found Tierney and from eight yards he guided his header down and beyond the static McGregor to make it 1-1.
That unsettled the visitors and with Slattery finding space to deliver some telling passes and Tierney’s intelligent running causing the Rangers back four some concern, ‘Well finished the first half on top.
However, within two minutes of the restart Rangers had regained the lead.
Sakala’s direct running carried him to the edge of the home penalty area and a pass to his right put Wright within shooting distance as his low strike sped past Carroll and beyond the diving Kelly to make it 2-1.
That didn’t knock the Steelmen off their stride but a killer blow arrived after 61 minutes.
Once again Sakala’s speed found him racing into the box and although Mugabi’s tackle looked fair and won the ball, as the Rangers’ winger fell to the ground the referee pointed to the penalty spot.
Despite strong appeals from the ‘Well players, Tavernier remained focused to fire the ball high to Kelly’s left and make it 3-1.
That two-goal cushion put Rangers back in control of the game, and with 23 minutes remaining Motherwell made a triple substitution.
It was Kelly, though, who denied Sakala a fourth goal after the winger ghosted in behind Ojala, only to find the ‘Well ‘keeper racing from his line to block his shot.
Despite the scoreline, there were some fine performances in claret and amber and the belief that a European spot is still within their reach in the remaining four games.