By Alistair Aird
We are now at the end of the third international break in season 2021/22. And it’s been a rather eventful one!
Scotland were magnificent against Denmark, although they had already qualified for the World Cup play-offs. That came courtesy of a win in Moldova that featured a goal and an assist for the prodigiously talented Nathan Patterson. There was also another statement from Fashion Sakala in the shape of a hat-trick in Zambia’s 4-0 win over Mauritania.
But this break will not be remembered for events on the park. Instead, we reflect on a period of furore and frenzy, trials and tribulations, comment and conjecture, all of which culminated in Steven Gerrard departing for the bright lights of Birmingham a matter of weeks after he shut down BT Sport’s Emma Dodds after she enquired about his future. After our 2-0 win over Brondby, the words ‘happy’ and ‘settled’ were used before Gerrard’s departing riposte in which he asked Ms Dodds not to ‘ask silly questions’. Turns out it wasn’t that ‘silly’ after all, and on Sunday at Hampden, Steven Gerrard will not lead Rangers out for what is our third League Cup semi final in the last four seasons.
There’s been plenty of column inches taken up by the ‘whys’ and ‘why nots’ surrounding Gerrard’s sudden departure. But while we’ve deliberated over what happened and what could happen next then digested the news once it’s been confirmed, I don’t intend to use up any more of the word count in this preview raking over old ground. Steven has done his job – he stopped ten-in-a-row and leaves Rangers in a much better place than we were when he came through the door – and he goes with our best wishes. But it’s now time to embrace the next chapter in our glorious history, and the start of the first chapter of that era will be penned on Sunday at 4pm when Rangers face Hibernian at Hampden with a place in the Final of the Betfred Scottish League Cup up for grabs.
The abrupt loss of a manager can go one of two ways. It can galvanise the players, give them an added incentive to show that the success achieved was as much to do with them as it was with the manager. Alternatively, shoulders can sag, heads can drop, and the players can suffer a hangover. We have to hope that it will be the former for Rangers, as the latter would have a catastrophic impact both at home and in Europe.
That should be helped by the presence of our new manager, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, at the game. While he won’t be in the dugout, he will be casting a watchful eye over proceedings, and that should make the players push the boundaries as they look to impress their new gaffer.
It looks like Gio’s first opportunity to pick the team will come on Thursday against Sparta Prague, so Sunday’s selection will all be down to the interim team of coaches that have overseen training this week. And although we have been in a state of flux, hopefully some semblance of equilibrium has been restored. The ship may have been rocked and listed a little, but it’s back on an even keel now.
No club has won the League Cup, first contested in season 1946/47, more than Rangers, but the last of those 27 triumphs came back in 2011, the late Walter Smith’s penultimate honour as Rangers’ manager. That statistic has to change. We need to get more silverware into the Trophy Room – we are after all the most successful club in the world – and Sunday offers the perfect opportunity to take a big step towards doing that. It would also gives Gio an early opportunity to add to the impressive haul of trophies he collected both as a player and manager.
Aside from the long-term absentees like Filip Helander, the only doubt for Sunday seems to be around Kemar Roofe. He picked up an injury while away on international duty with Jamaica and isn’t likely to be fit enough. He may well not have started the game in any case, as one would suspect Kent, Sakala and Hagi will be at the sharp end of the pitch on the basis of recent form.
Although not many fans are enamoured with a break from club football, this one will have been beneficial for Ryan Jack. After making his long-awaited return as a late sub against Livingston, he’ll have got another couple of weeks training under his belt, although a lack of match sharpness is most likely to count him out of consideration for a place in the starting XI.
Instead, it should be the tried and tested that will take to the field at the National Stadium. The goalkeepers may be rotated, with Jon McLaughlin drafted in, but the back four picks itself. Although Calvin Bassey has played well this season, Borna Barisic should be imbued with fresh impetus on the back of Croatia qualifying for the World Cup. Playing regularly for Rangers is the only way he can push for a place on the plane to Qatar and to do that he’ll need to rediscover the form he showed last season. I expect he’ll play at left-back, with Tavernier, Goldson and Balogun making up the rest of the rearguard.
In midfield, Joe Aribo, at the heart of so much of our good play recently, is now one of the first names on the teamsheet. He should be joined by John Lundstram and Glenn Kamara in the middle of the park. And I’ve already alluded to what the front three will look like, which means another spell on the bench for Alfredo Morelos.
Our opponents? The enjoyable 2-1 win over them, ironically prior to the previous international break, is still fresh in the memory. Rangers played well, particularly in the second half, but Hibs were more than a match for us until the rash Ryan Porteous saw red for a scandalous challenge on Joe Aribo.
But since losing at Ibrox, the Easter Road side have been stuck in a rut. They lost the next three league games and have also had to handle a significant COVID outbreak that led to the postponement of a couple of fixtures. To that end, their last win came back on 26 September, and they haven’t played since losing 3-1 to Celtic on 27 October. That may leave them a little rusty, so Rangers have to be on them from the get-go.
Every game that Rangers play is of paramount importance. The demands of our club are such that it’s always ‘must-win’. But this one has an added layer of significance. It’s a new dawn for the club, a new day, a new lease of life. And hopefully come the end of the match all the Rangers supporters will be feeling good