By Alistair Aird.
More often than not when a team wearing green and white visit Ibrox for a top-of-the table clash, their jerseys are hooped, and they hail from the other side of Glasgow. But on Sunday that won’t be the case. Instead, with our Old Firm rivals mired in mediocrity and occupying a mid-table position, Jack Ross will bring his second-placed Hibernian side along the M8 to Glasgow with the intention to topple Rangers from the top of the Premiership pile.
They will arrive in good form too. They are thus far unbeaten in the league – only Edinburgh rivals, Hearts, can boast likewise – and have also made the last four of the Premier Sports Cup. They achieved that with an impressive 3-1 win over Dundee United at Tannadice, and Sunday’s game is now something of a dress rehearsal for the match up between Rangers and Hibs at Hampden towards the end of November.
But vital league points are at stake this time around. Without firing on all cylinders, Rangers are top of the league and this match presents an opportunity to go into the international break with an extended lead over their opponents. That, however, will not be easy. Jack Ross has built a good, competent side, with the main threat coming from an in-form Martin Boyle. The subject of interest from Aberdeen during the summer transfer window and voted Player of the Month for August, Boyle has 10 goals in 13 appearances this season, and he will be a handful for what may well be a makeshift Rangers defence.
With Connor Goldson missing the Sparta Prague defeat with a knock and Jack Simpson ineligible, Steven Gerrard opted to pair Leon Balogun with Calvin Bassey. Bassey has been brilliant at left back this season, but he looked uncomfortable in the Czech capital. And if Goldson is to miss out again, calling upon young Simpson may also give cause for concern as the young lad from Weymouth had a tough time in the recent 1-1 draw against Motherwell.
The absence of Goldson on Thursday showed how important he is to the team. Although he hasn’t had the best of starts to the season – he was caught out by a basic long ball against Dundee that ultimately led to the concession of a penalty – he remains the lynchpin at the heart of the defence. He rarely misses a game, but when he does, Rangers miss his presence. Steven Gerrard reckons he has an ‘outside chance’ of being back in the starting XI at 3pm on Sunday. Let’s hope he is.
Goldson isn’t alone in having an indifferent start to the season. As a whole, Rangers have lacked the slick cohesion that was so often evident last season. Too often the build up play has been laborious, and our play has lacked intensity. We have played in fits and starts – the first half against Motherwell being a prime example of what we can do when we play at the levels we are capable of – yet we didn’t pulverise them when we were dominant. That killer pass in the final third has been missing, with Morelos, Roofe and Sakala starved of the chance to do what they can do best, score goals.
There remains a dilemma in what our best front three is made up of. Joe Aribo has been pushed into the front line in the two Europa League group games, but, for me, he is more of a threat from midfield. Alfredo Morelos has also been at his infuriating best, looking every inch the stellar centre forward on occasion then appearing disinterested and lazy at others. It would be interesting to find out what Steven Gerrard perceives to be his top trio up front.
In midfield, it will likely be Aribo, Kamara and either Davis or Lundstram. The jury has been out on the latter – his reckless red card in the Europa Cup tie remains fresh in the memory for most supporters – but his powerhouse performance at Dens Park showed what he is capable of. If he can produce that on a consistent basis then he can challenge the evergreen Davis for a starting slot on a regular basis.
It will also be interesting to see who Steven selects in goals. Allan McGregor, magnificent again against Sparta Prague, has missed out recently on league business, and Jon McLaughin was the difference between one point and three at Dens Park a week ago. But having two experienced goalkeepers to choose between is a feather in Steven’s cap in terms of his recruitment strategy.
But it is a squad game nowadays. While rotation can be disruptive, it keeps key players fresh. And despite the criticism that has been levelled at the team, we are still out in front in the race for the title. That has to be a positive – despite the inconsistencies we are still in advance of the others – but the supporters are hungry for a return to the swashbuckling performances that were a hallmark of season 2020/21. And there would be no better occasion to deliver that than on Sunday. It would be a statement of intent from this Rangers team, one that says this our title; if you want it, you’re going to have to come and get it.