International breaks are never the most popular time amongst Rangers fans. Since the difficulties of 2012, we've not exactly had huge numbers of players representing their countries and, even now, Ryan Jack seems to be the only Scottish player considered good enough to make what is a poor Scotland squad. Yep, fortnights of fun these are not.
Fortunately, there has been a small, but noticeable, increase in interest of late though. Borna Barisic is first choice left back for Croatia whilst the fans of Colombia are becoming ever more excited about the work of Alfredo Morelos. Steven Davis is also breaking appearance records for Northern Ireland, Joe Aribo is scoring for Nigeria against Brazil and Glen Kamara is a key figure in the Finnish midfield. Scott Arfield will also have enjoyed skippering Canada's first win over USA in 35 years. Suffice to say our numbers are improving and that's a good way of measuring the development of our squad in recent times.
However, it's back to club action for all this weekend, with the schedule again a busy one until the next break in mid-November. And, with Rangers top of the league after the events of two weeks back, we could have hardly have asked for a tougher restart than away to Hearts at Tynecastle.
Now, to qualify that difficulty, the Jambos aren't in the greatest of form. Currently ninth in the table with just six points from a possible 24, the Edinburgh men have really struggled so far this campaign. They only have one league win to their name and have suffered from a number of injuries to key players. Naismith, Souttar, Halkett, Washington, Haring, Walker and more have all been missing at some point and, as much as Hearts performances remain poor and one-dimensional enough to disappoint their fans, if we had similar numbers of key players missing, we'd point to that as well for inconsistency.
Interestingly though, Craig Levein's record in general against Rangers isn't a good one. In his time as Hearts manager, he's only managed to beat us once in 24 attempts (h/t @JFK-1) and, for whatever reason, has struggled badly when playing us. Twenty defeats and three draws complete that record and even with a few of the missing players above available again this weekend, it's difficult to see that run improving. Yet, if Levein is looking for extra motivation then he won't need to look any further than his own mirror. And, he does retain a few fine young players who'll be eager to extend their reputations in Gorgie on Sunday.
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Along the M8, the picture couldn't be any more different. Just the one domestic defeat and qualification for the Europa League group stage means things could scarcely have went better for Steven Gerrard so far this season.
Although performances haven't always been of the quality seen in Ibrox routs over Hibs, Aberdeen and, most recently, Hamilton; Rangers have shown more mettle this season than last by also winning games where we haven't played well. Indeed, aside from a fine second half display in Perth, Rangers haven't looked anywhere near as comfortable away from home and only one goal margins have been achieved in Kilmarnock, Paisley and, in the cup, to Livingston. Even so, most bears will consider these a positive though as these were the types of games where crucial points were dropped in previous seasons.
In terms of the personnel available to the 'Gers manager, the picture is again more agreeable than that of his Edinburgh counterpart. Marquee signing Ryan Kent is available again after a recent calf strain and Jon Flanagan is also back in full training after a recent hernia operation. Unfortunately, Ryan Jack will be out for a while longer after he went off injured in Bern earlier this month.
With such a big squad, also comes a variety of selection and systems. Our quality at centre half is now obvious with four players all capable of delivering clean sheets in most games. Connor Goldson continues to be first choice and picking his partner seems to be dependent on the opposition rather than individual form at times. Although Uche Ikpeazu missed Hearts' last game, if he's fit on Sunday, then it will be particularly interesting to see who is deployed with Niko Katic and George Edmundson perhaps the best physical and aerial options Rangers have. Yet, for all criticism aimed at him, Felip Helander has yet to be in a Rangers team that concedes a domestic goal so don't be surprised to see the big Swede start either.
Further forward in the team, the aforementioned international matches may have some effect on how we line up on Sunday. With Ryan Jack unlikely to feature, the rest of our usual deeper three players were all travelling across Europe and the rest of the world to star for their countries. It will also be interesting to see if Scott Arfield is used in the deeper role we've seen him do well at Ibrox in or if someone like Matt Polster or Greg Docherty is used as a more defensive foil in what is always a tricky venue with a physical opposition.
With Ryan Kent fit again, that offers extra choice in the attacking three also and, on top of the good work done by Ojo, Stewart and Barker across this season, as well as options such as Jamie Murphy, Gerrard does have several creative players he can rely on as the colder months arrive. Fortunately, although Alfredo Morelos played two matches for Colombia across the break, both were in Europe so he should start ahead of the always dependable Jermain Defoe.
Steven Gerrard has been at pains to downplay the fact Rangers went top two weeks ago and he's right to do so. We're only in mid-October and it would be a surprise to see anything other than the lead changing hands several times as the season progresses. Gerrard will also be keen to impress on his players what happened the last time we led the league into a break last January. On that occasion we let a 1-0 lead slip away to Kilmarnock after the winter shutdown and the league was pretty much done from that point forward as our team mentally capitulated.
However, this season at least, has seen a better Rangers: less prone to dropping points and mentally stronger when it comes to adversity. Sure, we're by no means the finished product and anyone thinking success this season is inevitable will soon feel differently as the Tynecastle crowd and Hearts players get right at us from the first whistle come Sunday lunchtime.
In fact, the real work is just starting and Sunday will be just one more examination of a squad and manager that has yet to pass any silverware test (monthly SPFL awards aside). Nevertheless opportunity knocks more than ever for this improved Rangers team and I expect them to rise to the occasion again this weekend!
Possible team (4-3-2-1)
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