Sparta Preview – Knockout Stages or Knocked Out?

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By Alistair Aird

Life is a rollercoaster at Rangers, and sometimes we’ve just got to ride it. We love it really!

Since we last played at Ibrox, we’ve lost our manager, appointed a new one, and produced arguably the most woeful performance for many years as we passed up a golden opportunity to reach the Final of the Betfred Cup.

Much has been said about the manner of the defeat to Hibernian. It was another puzzling and perplexing performance from the champions, but a League Cup semi-final loss to the Easter Road side is actually the start of the symmetry with the last time Sparta Prague played us in Glasgow just over thirty years ago.

In September 1991, Rangers were also at the start of a new era, with our new manager taking over from a Liverpool icon. Admittedly, we were a few pages further on in the Walter Smith chapter in our history than we are with Giovanni van Bronckhorst, but there are similarities, nonetheless. We lost at Hampden to Hibs on 25 September, seven days after we suffered a 1-0 reverse when we faced Sparta in the Czech capital in the opening round of the European Cup.

That meant Rangers needed to win by two clear goals to progress back then, and we require a similar margin on Thursday to guarantee a place in the knockout stages of the Europa League (assuming, as expected, Lyon beat Brondby in Denmark. However, it’s there that we hope the parallels end. Rangers did indeed score two goals – both netted by a recently acquired midfield dynamo called Stuart McCall – but a fumble by our new goalkeeper, Andy Goram, saw Rangers bounced out by the Czechs after extra time.

So, what can we expect from Rangers on Thursday? Will it be Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde? And will we make it through the first half hour without conceding the first goal?

These are all pertinent, burning questions, but at his official unveiling on Monday, van Bronckhorst was keen to impress that having only two days to try and get across his strategies and ideologies wasn’t ideal. He should, however, get a response from his team – that’s surely the least we can expect – although I wouldn’t expect we will see many changes in personnel.

Gio stressed he is a keen exponent of the 4-3-3 system, so we may well line up in a similar manner than we did under Steven Gerrard. It is, however, likely that the execution of that formation and the fluidity within it will be different. Gio has already recognised areas that he wants to tweak and tinker with, so it will be interesting to see just how the game plan plays out on Thursday. First and foremost, though, we have to be tighter at the back end.

In terms of what the starting XI will look like, there has been a clamour in certain sections of the Rangers support for James Tavernier and Connor Goldson to be dropped but that seems unlikely. Barring injury, both will be part of the back four, although Calvin Bassey may get the nod ahead of Borna Barisic at left back. The Croatian was poor again on Sunday, and the bustling Bassey offers a different dimension to our play at both ends of the pitch.

The rationale for Goldson being left out is based upon his post-match comments on Sunday. On the one hand, at least our vice-captain came out and did the interview. As captain, Tavernier should have been the one to step up and give an explanation as to why we surrendered so meekly against Hibernian. But he didn’t. Perhaps it was pre-arranged that Goldson would do the post-match media, but under the circumstances, Tavernier should have pulled rank. That has cast doubt over whether he should retain the armband under van Bronckhorst, but such a decision isn’t one to be taken lightly and it’s almost certain that Tavernier will lead the team out on Thursday.

As for Goldson, he has fallen well short of the high standard he set last season, and needs to buck up his ideas, irrespective of whether he wants a lucrative new contract from Rangers or any other potential suitors. The emotion was there for all to see on Sunday, but his comments should have been kept in-house and addressed in the dressing room. He will be in the XI, although his place in the team may only be cemented by the fact that Gio has limited options at centre back just now.

In midfield, I’d like to see Ryan Jack start the game. We’ve missed him while he has been out, and he showed some drive and determination when he came off the bench at Hampden. He may not be match sharp but getting a good hour to 70 minutes out of him could make a massive difference. Glenn Kamara and John Lundstram would also get the nod for me.

Up top, Joe Aribo and Ryan Kent would be my wide men providing supply for Alfredo Morelos. Gio was questioned about ‘El Buffalo’ on Monday and he was quick to point out that it wasn’t about just one player. But getting our number 20 back close to his best must be at the forefront of van Bronckhorst’s mind. He has been unplayable on occasion at this level, so hopefully a couple of days working with someone of the calibre of Roy Makaay has got him back close to that standard. If selected, he needs to relight his fire, as the patience of the Rangers fans is paper thin at this moment in time.

While Rangers come into the match on the back of a wretched performance, our opponents most recent match was also a chastening experience. On Saturday they faced 1. FC Slovácko away from home and were soundly beaten by four goals to nil. That, however, was only their second league defeat of the season, and they are currently fourth in the table, five points behind city rivals Slavia Prague after 15 games.

Tactically, their manager, Pavel Vrba, who has taken charge of 94 European ties, favours a system that isn’t too dissimilar to the 4-3-3 that Gio has adopted. He likes his wingers to press high, and in Adam Hložek, he has at his disposal one of the hottest prospects in the Czech First League. Aged 19, he has been linked with a January move to West Ham United and Liverpool, and he was joint top scorer in the league last year with 15 goals. This was a phenomenal achievement when one considers he missed a huge chunk of the season, some four months, with a fractured metatarsal.

But Vrba has some major injury concerns going into the match. Danish left back Casper Nielsen, signed in May from Aarhus, has a calf injury, the influential youngster, Filip Soucek, has a knee injury, while Lukas Julis misses out with a groin injury. Julis’s absence is significant. He has eight goals in European competition, and only midfielders Ladislav Krejčí (11) and Bořek Dočkal (15) have scored more than him at this level. Of his potential replacements in the firing line, only Matěj Pulkrab (1) has found the net in the Europa League.

The man in the middle is Danny Makkelie from Holland. This is his 100th match as a referee in UEFA competition, and he was in charge for the 2020 Europa League Final between Sevilla and Inter Milan. He has refereed one Rangers match in the past, the 1-0 defeat in Leverkusen in August 2020, and this will be his second match in Glasgow having previously blown the whistle during Celtic’s 2-1 defeat against Bayern Munich in 2017. Hopefully, Meneer Makkelie has a quiet night, and neither he nor the Video Assistant Referee, Pol van Boekel, are the centre of attention.

If the referee is indeed having a quiet night, then the same most certainly won’t be said for the Ibrox stands. They will be rocking and rolling as they always are on these special nights. The hope is that Rangers roar too, and play with a swashbuckling swagger, much like they did when van Bronckhorst played for the club. That may have been over 20 years ago now, but the ethos of the club remains the same, we must win.

It promises to be an interesting night as the Giovanni van Bronckhorst era starts in earnest.

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