Mark Warburton had the last laugh as Rangers brought Hibs’ 17-match unbeaten run to a shuddering halt and restored themselves as outright leaders at the top of the Championship table.
Hibs boss Alan Stubbs had attempted to play mindgames with his Ibrox counterpart throughout the days leading up to this match, a psychological warfare as he highlighted how the Glasgow side had allowed a seemingly impregnable lead to slip in recent weeks.
But, despite Jason Cummings adding to those misgivings as he plundered his third goal of the season against those in light blue – and his seventh in two seasons – Warburton’s players showed they had the mental strength to cope.
Former Hearts star Jason Holt netted twice before substitute Nicky Clark put the game out of reach even if Rangers played out the last 19 minutes with ten men, Andy Halliday shown a straight red card as he barged into Fraser Fyvie after reacting angrily to a heavy challenge from the Hibs midfielder.
Dominique Malonga did pull one back for Hibs with four minutes remaining but, even so, there was still time for Martyn Waghorn to add a fourth for Rangers, slipping the ball through the legs of Mark Oxley.
Now it will be Stubbs’ task to lift his players for the second half of the season, the Easter Road head coach having insisted that this game was a “free hit” for his players given Rangers have to visit Edinburgh again before the campaign is out.
Whether this proves to be a defining point for either club does, of course, remain to be seen. However, Stubbs and his players may now be the ones looking over their shoulders, knowing Falkirk, who have gone largely unnoticed all season, can draw level with them on points should they beat Livingston tomorrow night.
And it was former Celtic defender Stubbs, who had insisted he enjoyed the abuse hurled at him at Ibrox, who had to stand on the touchline listening to the home fans rubbing it in big style.
The war of words finally over, the weeks of jibes and counter-thrusts between Stubbs and Warburton laid to the side, it was left to the players to do their talking on the pitch rather than their respective managers.
There was little doubt, however, Stubbs had got under the skin of his Ibrox counterpart, a potentially fatal 11-point gap which was being predicted as recently as the start of last month when these two clubs last met, evaporating as the Easter Road club slowly but relentlessly reeled in the Championship favourites to go into the last match of 2015 level at the top of the table.
Little wonder then that Stubbs had insisted it was only natural the Glasgow players would be looking somewhat anxiously over their shoulders as Hibs loomed larger and larger in the rear-view mirror.
A match which had been anxiously awaited for weeks now – billed the biggest game of the season thus far – naturally created a febrile atmosphere inside a sold-out Ibrox, Warburton’s players intent on a whirlwind start which saw leading scorer Waghorn fire in a low shot which was comfortably held by Oxley.
Jason Cummings sent a glancing header from Liam Henderson’s free-kick just wide to remind the home side they wouldn’t be getting it all their own way against a team unbeaten since losing 1-0 at this ground in August.
However, it was undoubtedly the Govan side which held the upper hand in those opening 20 minutes as Hibs struggled to get a foothold in the game, Rangers using the full width of the pitch with Waghorn happy to come in from wide on the right while Barrie McKay offfered width on the opposite flank.
And they should have taken the lead when James Tavernier, in a rare foray forward, delivered a cross which met the head of Kenny Miller only for Oxley to get a hand to it. The goalkeeper’s luck appeared to be out, though, as the ball fell for the unmarked McKay, who could do no better than steer his shot wide.
Hibs made full use of that let-off, skipper David Gray’s cross falling for Liam Henderson, who saw his shot deflected to the feet of Cummings who applied the deftest – and coolest – of touches to beat Wes Foderingham despite the plaintive, but clearly wrong, claims from the home defence for offside.
It was a lead which was to last just ten minutes, however, Fyvie was dispossessed as he brought the ball out from the back, his intentions read perfectly by Tavernier, who knocked the ball out for Waghorn to find Holt, who beat Oxley with a low shot from 12 yards.
Stubbs’ players, unable to make possession stick, were now facing a real test with Halliday driving just over as Rangers continued to press forward, their reward coming three minutes from the interval as they allowed McKay to feed a pass into the penalty area where Holt squared up Darren McGregor before his low shot was deflected beyond the unsighted Oxley.
Hibs resumed after the break with Liam Fontaine, who had seen Paul Hanlon chosen ahead of him in the starting line-up, on for Gray, who had picked up a head knock in a challenge with Halliday, a switch which saw McGregor move out to right back to accommodate the substitute in central defence.
The Edinburgh club had arrived in Glasgow well aware of the need to retain possession, something they’d failed to manage during the opening 45 minutes and, as the second half got underway, there was little indication of that changing, Rangers content to let them have the ball and ready to pick off the countless stray passes made by those in green and white.
Warburton’s players, though, would have been aware that Hibs had salvaged precious points in their last two outings against Falkirk and Queen of the South with stoppage-time strikes and were obviously intent on on not allowing them to do so a third time.
Ex-Hibs striker Miller almost ensured that would be the case on the hour mark, blazing McKay’s cutback high over from six yards.
Substitute Clark did so just three minutes after Warburton made a double switch, taking off Miller and Law and replacing them with the former Queen of the South frontman and Dean Shiels, the forward drifting in behind the Hibs defence to knock Holt’s inviting pass beyond the exposed Oxley once again.
Rangers would have been thankful for that third goal when they were reduced to ten men with 19 minutes remaining, Halliday shown a straight red card as he reacted angrily to a heavy challenge from Fyvie by barging into the Hibs midfielder.
Substitute Malonga did give Hibs hope, nodding home with four minutes to go but Waghorn piled on the misery for the visitors by adding a fourth in the final minute.
Rangers (4-3-3): Foderingham; Tavernier, Kieran, Wilson, Wallace; Law (Clark 62), Halliday, Holt; Waghorn, Miller (Shiels 62), McKay (Ball 74). Unused subs: Kelly, Thompson, Oduwa, Zelalem.
Hibs (4-4-2): Oxley; Gray (Fontaine 46), McGregor, Hanlon, Stevenson; Henderson, McGeouch, Fyvie, McGinn (Boyle 71); Cummings (Malonga 63), Keatings. Unused subs: Reguero, Bartley, Feruz, Anier.
Referee: Bobby Madden.