It's only been a few weeks since Rangers got the better of Celtic but, as the winter break finally comes to a close with a return to action in the Cup against Stranraer, that victory in the East End of Glasgow already seems a long time ago. Yet, there's a sense of familiarity with the position we're in - especially compared to this time last year.
Going back to January 2019, we were getting ready for a Cup tie away to Cowdenbeath, still basking in the glow of a home win at Ibrox against Celtic and excited by the fact we were tied with our greatest rivals at the top of the table. That positive feeling didn't last long: the Cup game was postponed and a clearly sluggish Rangers team went down to a defeat in our first match of the new year to Kilmarnock. Joe Worrall was the scapegoat as we lost the game despite taking an early lead but it was fairly obvious the whole team lacked that extra bit of belief, the winners' mentality any successful side requires to win trophies. Any league title challenge was gone without really starting and it was back to square one in terms of offering any sort of competition to Celtic.
Fast forward 12 months, the top of the league table is eerily similar so at first glance, you'd be excused for thinking we hadn't made progress since last season. However, you'd be wrong. This time Celtic have played a game more, thus, if we win our game in hand, we'll actually be top of the league on our own. Moreover, although Celtic's points tally has increased, we've also won more games, drew less games and lost only once this campaign. Most importantly though is the way we've found that improvement: whilst no Rangers supporter can say we've been excellent throughout the league campaign, there has been an obvious advancement in the way we're able to achieve three points. Indeed, from the very first game - ironically away to Kilmarnock - the character in the side is a lot clearer. There now appears to be a belief in this Rangers team that they can win any game and, crucially, even when suffering from setbacks. Of course goals win games and skill on the ball excites fans more than anything else. But, if you don't have mental strength, then you can forget any sort of winners' medal.
With that in mind, Rangers' efforts through this season and in December in particular, were very impressive. To come back from the disappointment of an avoidable draw in Aberdeen as well as a League Cup Final defeat and win every domestic game since has demonstrated a strength of will that I wasn't sure this Rangers team had: in fact, there was a small part of me that thought this crucial element of desire may have gone from the club itself. Thankfully, I've been proven wrong in little over four games with tricky away wins at Motherwell and Hibs as well as hard fought victories against Killie and Celtic. Quite simply we wouldn't have done that last December so this new found confidence of the players and coaching team should be appreciated by the fans. We wanted progress. We've got it.
However, the real challenge is just about to begin.
OK, it might not come tonight at Ibrox against Stranraer and tougher tests are on the way but don't prepare correctly for this match and the same slackness will affect us in the league. Accordingly, whilst many fans are quite reasonably expecting in effect a reserve XI, I'd prefer as strong a team as possible - even if it means some accepted first choice players come on from the bench. Yes, we've come a long way in terms of general squad quality since we drew with the Wigtownshire Blues in 2013 but, with one eye on next week's match against St Mirren, we need all of our players back as sharp as possible as quickly as possible. Given we'll also be without captain James Tavernier and top-scorer Alfredo Moreos for at least the next three games, then we need the rest of our best XI to find the top of their game in advance of resuming our league campaign.
Consequently, tonight's team/squad pretty much picks itself again for me with only Tav's replacement the real source of debate. Does the manager go for experience with Matt Polster (apparently free to leave on loan but reluctant to do so) or Jon Flanagan (rarely a let down on the left side but, even of his preferred right flank, hardly an attacking option like his skipper) or will 18 year old Nathan Patterson be offered the chance given he does like to get forward. Personally I suspect the latter tonight with one of the first two in future games.
In attack Jermain Defoe will again deputise for the suspended Alfredo Morelos. In the face of some disgraceful reporting in the media of the Colombian, Rangers supporters are quite right defending their talisman but his preventable loss of discipline in his last two away games has represented his manager with a problem. Fortunately, even from when Defoe joined Rangers this time last year, the veteran Englishman has rarely let us down in terms of goal supply so the onus will be on him for the next three games and, most probably later again in the season. One wonders if the manager may be tempted into signing another striker for back-up purposes?
In terms of the rest of the side, cases can be made for various fringe players to come into the team. Going by yesterday's press conference, George Edmundson will be starting instead of Connor Goldson and Wes Foderingham will likely displace Allan McGregor as well. Others such as Steven Davis or Ryan Kent may be utilised from the bench as opposed to starting but I'd like to see both given a good run out as they will be the creative players tasked with unlocking a stubborn St Mirren defence next midweek. Yes, we need minutes in the legs of fringe players but after a three week break, the same can be said for the whole squad. Finding that balance may not affect tonight's outcome but it will across the rest of the month.
In view of this, we may see some some of hybrid starting XI tonight: in effect a combination of fringe players needing game-time and first-teamers requiring a staged return to full sharpness without risking fitness longevity. Ergo, a team along the following lines seems likely (sorry no team graphics this week):
Possible starting XI (4-3-3):
Patterson | Edmundson | Katic | Barisic
Arfield | Jack | Aribo
Ojo | Defoe | Jones
From the bench, I'd expect Steven Davis, Glen Kamara and Ryan Kent to feature later in the game whilst players like Goldson and Barker will also fancy same minutes alongside the youngsters who've recently trained with their first team in Dubai.
All things considered, I'm perhaps being overly cautious when it comes to worrying about the fitness (or at least the sharpness) of players. Other teams will have the same concern but, for me, it's all about learning from past lessons. In that regard, I do think we were unfortunate last January with the postponement of the Cowdenbeath Cup tie and I did think it cost us to some degree in our first match back at Rugby Park. As such, I'm really keen for us to use tonight's match not as a training game or as some sort of friendly but give it the competitive respect it deserves. That's not to say we can't involve fringe players or promote younger talent but that we do ensure the bulk of our usual first XI - those who will be tasked with delivering the league title above all else - are ready to resume that challenge in perfect condition next Wednesday.
We won a fantastic battle on the 29th of December, let's not lose the war this time.
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