It’s fair to say 2020 hasn’t really been kind to Rangers so far. A combination of suspensions, injuries, poor form, bad refereeing and awful weather means performances and results haven’t been of the standard required since we return from the winter break.
With that in mind, turning our attentions back to European football over the next week might be a welcome distraction for everyone connected to the club.
Firstly, as has been the case for the bulk of our Europa League campaign, we’re not really expected to progress against Braga. That lower expectation decreases pressure on the players and may allow them to play with a bit more freedom than they have of late. Similarly, unlike most of the Scottish teams we’ve faced this year, Braga are much more likely to be positive themselves, meaning we get more room to play and actually get some of our attacking players into the game.
There’s no coincidence that we’ve often looked more comfortable against European opposition. Games have tended to be more open and we usually do well on the counter. Conversely we also appear happier in a defensive sense with deeper midfield cover for our full-backs, meaning we’re not usually exposed to the counter ourselves like we can be when having to commit so many players forward in domestic matches.
Unfortunately, injuries and suspensions means the manager may again be unable to choose his strongest team; certainly in the first leg. Ryan Jack was sent off against Young Boys so misses this match whilst Borna Barisic picked up a knock at Hamilton ten days ago and hasn’t featured since. In terms of replacements, as much as Joe Aribo has proved his worth in Europe, he doesn’t offer the same presence or leadership as Jack so the latter will be a huge miss tomorrow night. Similarly, whilst Andy Halliday rarely shirks any role he’s offered in the team, neither does he offer the same quality of Barisic at left back. Jon Flanagan isn’t in the squad so won’t be an option at wing back.
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Despite these missing players, the starting XI should still have a fairly recognisable look to it. Defensively we now have plenty experience with McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson and Katic having all played in earlier rounds. The same can be said for our likely midfield three of Arfield, Davis and Kamara who are all capable of not only winning the ball back effectively but are positionally sound and able to keep the ball when we have it too.
Further forward we also have several options. Jermain Defoe will miss both these games and Jordan Jones is another who didn’t make the squad for this round. However, Ianis Hagi has impressed since joining from Genk on loan and Flo Kamberi also showed against Livi that he could be a useful alternative should he be required.
Most importantly for Rangers though will be getting Alfredo Morelos and Ryan Kent back in form. The Colombian has been unlucky with some poor officiating ruling out two perfectly good goals in his last two games but hasn’t looked quite as sharp as he did in 2019. The same can be said for Kent who looks well short of confidence and hasn’t done anywhere near as much in a creative sense of late. However it would be a surprise if both didn’t start leaving one more attacking midfield role for either Hagi, Kamberi, Aribo, Greg Stewart, Sheyi Ojo or even the lessor spotted Brandon Barker whom the manager has turned to before in European games this season.
Whatever the team chosen, it’s not an easy task at all against Braga. When the draw was made last year, we were certainly more confident than we are now. The Portuguese outfit have since shown better form than us this year though and, although well behind Benfica and Porto in the Primeira Liga, have won matches against both over the last month. With players such as Francisco Trincão (who will be moving to Barcelona in the summer for €35million) they have undoubted quality.
Nevertheless, what some of our fans and, perhaps the players as well, have forgotten recently is we do too. As such, this represents a great opportunity for us to restore some of that belief and increase morale with what is effectively a free hit at progressing to the last 16 of the Europa League.
With a few months still to go in that tournament, as well as the Scottish Cup and Ladbrokes Premiership, Steven Gerrard’s Rangers can still make a challenge in all three of these competitions and the Englishman should be keener than ever to make that clear to the players. As winter hopefully blows itself out here in Scotland soon, fingers crossed we can see some shoots of recovery in our season by the time we enjoy the warmth of Portugal next Wednesday.
Possible team (4-3-2-1):
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