By Alistair Aird.
After what seems like an eternity, the international break has ended, and Rangers are back in action this Saturday with another mouth-watering top-of-the-table clash on the menu. After seeing off one side of Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago, we’re back home to face the other and the stakes now are the same as they were then, the team that wins will top the table.
Newly promoted Hearts have enjoyed a fine, unbeaten start to the season. Indeed, they are the only side that has avoided defeat in the top flight, registering five wins and three draws thus far. They arrive in Glasgow a point adrift of Steven Gerrard’ side, and among those to have their hearts broken by Robbie Neilson’s side are Celtic, the Jambos inflicting the first of three damaging league defeats on our Old Firm rivals.
There’s a Rangers connection throughout the Hearts ranks. Lee McCulloch, a huge part of our journey back to 55, is assistant manager, and Steven Naismith, who hung up his boots at the end of last season, is their Football Development Manager. On the pitch, Barrie McKay was recruited in the summer, and they have a bona fide cult hero down in G51 in the shape of Andy Halliday in their squad too.
But the principal threat to the Rangers rear-guard is most likely to come from Liam Boyce. Northern Ireland’s Football Writers’ Player of the Year in season 2009/10 and 2013/14, Boyce had a short spell at Werder Bremen before coming to Scotland to play for Ross County after netting a glut of goals for Cliftonville. A League Cup winner with County and top scorer in the Scottish Premiership in season 2016/17, Boyce joined Burton Albion before signing for Hearts in the 2020 January transfer window. He made his debut against Rangers at Tynecastle, and his late goal dealt the first of many blows to our title challenge following our return from the winter break in Dubai. And with six goals so far this season, Boyce is joint top scorer in the Scottish Premiership.
From a Rangers perspective, there will be a few questions on the lips of the fans. Firstly, what Rangers side will turn up? In his excellent piece that analysed the season thus far, Duncan Wright used words like ‘inconsistent’ and ‘infuriating’ to describe how the champions have played. We can all agree that we are yet to hit the heights of last season, yet we still find ourselves leading the title race. It must be hoped that the pumped-up reaction of the manager and the fervour of the fans after the win over Hibernian marks a turnaround that will see us flex our muscles and pull away from the chasing pack.
The next quandaries are around what XI Steven Gerrard will choose and the formation he will play. After his bold move to leave out James Tavernier against Hibernian and change the shape of the team – we started with what looked like 4-2-3-1 then reverted to 4-4-2 when Kemar Roofe came on after the interval – it will be intriguing to see how we line-up for this one. Fatigue may play a factor in Gerrard’s decisions, with several players far travelled on international duty. However, the likes of Sakala, Roofe and Hagi should return imbued with confidence thanks to the goals they scored – Roofe’s goal for Jamaica his first at this level – as will Nathan Patterson after his superb cross created the winning goal for a stodgy Scotland in the Faroe Islands. And with Steven Davis playing every minute of the games Northern Ireland played, he may well be rested and present Jon Lundstram with the opportunity to continue his fine form of late.
Steven therefore has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal. There could be yet another permutation in the front three, although, if all report back with a clean bill of health, a triumvirate of Roofe, Morelos and Hagi looks the most likely. At the back, one has to assume that the only change in the back five will be the return of the captain. Gerrard was effusive in his praise of James Tavernier after benching him for the Hibernian game – he referred to James as being ‘a machine’ – but you could understand if Nathan Patterson felt aggrieved if he is left out, particularly if you look back to the pivotal contribution his sumptuous assist made in our last league match. But having two first-class right backs to choose from is a huge positive for Steven, something he has admitted himself lately. In midfield, it looks like Aribo, Kamara and most likely Lundstram given the exertions of the man who is now the most capped Rangers player of all time, Steven Davis.
With that in mind, here’s my XI that I feel will break Hearts and move us further ahead in the quest for 56:
McGregor, Tavernier, Barisic, Balogun, Goldson, Kamara, Lundstram, Aribo, Roofe, Morelos and Hagi
The games are coming thick and fast. After this we have the proverbial six-pointer against Brondby in the Europa League. But we can’t look that far ahead. The Premiership is the bread and butter, and we’re ready – as always – for this one. To coin a well-known phrase, ‘let’s go’.