It's fair to say Rangers supporters' apathy to international breaks has been increasingly noticeable over the last ten years. The 'journey', including an obvious lack of quality players for several years since we were demoted to 2012, meant few Rangers players were involved at that level. Other than Lee Wallace on our return to the top league, few Rangers players stood out enough to be considered good enough to play for Scotland, whilst the other foreign players we recruited were hardly top of their country's class either.
Fortunately, as the Rangers team progresses and evolves so does our squad's opportunities at that higher level. Ryan Jack has shown up well enough for Scotland of late to play regularly under Steve Clarke and the likes of Borna Barisic and Glen Kamara are considered first choice for their country. Add in the record-breaking NI internationalist Steven Davis and new signings such as Cedric Itten and Leon Balogun then there's no coincidence that our results are getting better as the squad improves. However, that good news does become worrisome in terms of increased injury risk and, nowadays, concerns related to Covid exposure whilst travelling. Indeed, if we add our other internationalists Morelos, Helander, Hagi, McLaughlin, Jones, Arfield and even youngsters such as Patterson and Middleton to that risk assessment then poking fun at Celtic's recent Covid issues soon becomes a bad idea.
Nevertheless, their pandemic problems are relevant when it comes to discussing this weekend's first Old Firm game of the season and we can also consider ourselves fortunate to be playing at an empty Parkhead with fans still not permitted to attend games across Scotland and the UK. As it stands, their favoured striker Odsonne Eduoard is still self-isolating in France and won't arrive back until Friday at the earliest. Meanwhile, other first team players such as Ryan Christie, Nir Bitton, James Forrest and Hatem Abd Elhamed cannot play and top-scorer Albian Ajeti is also struggling with injury. Celtic do have a large squad though with several other decent options throughout their team. The likes of Griffiths, Jullien and Elyounoussi may not have been first choice this season but have caused Rangers problems in previous meetings.
For our part, although we don't have any Covid-related issues (for now!) we do have some doubts as well. Last week, Filip Helander was sent back from the Sweden squad early due to a knock and Borna Barisic hasn't featured for Croatia either since going off injured against Ross County ten days ago. Moreover, although Kemar Roofe may well be available for Saturday's match, Joe Aribo is perhaps still a week or two away, Niko Katic remains a long term absentee and it's unlikely new loan signing Bongani Zungu will be ready to feature. Steven Gerrard will certainly be hoping Helander and Barisic both make it at the very least as, although Balogun and Calvin Bassey have shown up fairly well since arriving in the summer, it would be a slight concern to start with two Old Firm debutants on the left side of our back four this weekend.
Even if this were to happen though, Rangers should be rightly confident ahead of the game. A solid 2-1 win at Parkhead pre-winter shutdown last season and a decent start across this campaign means morale is high amongst our supporters and one must think the manager and players also feel assured. Yes, it should be noted we were in a similar position this time last season (three league wins out of three and freshly qualified for the Europa League group stage) ahead of a home loss against Celtic but one would hope lessons have been learned in terms of that result.
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Interestingly, neither Helander, Barisic nor Morelos started in that defeat with Rangers also struggling tactically throughout. With that in mind, Gerrard's starting line up will be fascinating on Saturday. Will those with knocks make it? Will Morelos return in good time from international duty in Chile? Who will form the midfield with Davis, Jack and Kamara all in action for their countries? Who will the manager pick behind his striker: can we expect Barker, Hagi or Jones? What about the system: a 4-2-3-1 or our more familiar 4-3-3? Shall we sit deeper and look to hit on the counter ala our European style or take the game to a weakened Celtic (both personnel and support wise)?
Although these questions may well be causing the manager some sleepless nights ahead of Saturday, it wouldn't be a proper preview without giving my own opinion and, in fact, as long as our most utilised players are available, then I think the team is fairly easy to pick. Our defence has been very good by and large this season so the back five picks itself with McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Helander and Barisic more than capable of offering a suitable protection to whatever Celtic threats are selected.
The midfield is slightly less easy to predict but if, as seems likely, the manager opts for a 4-3-3 system, then Davis and Kamara should start leaving one of Ryan Jack or Scott Arfield as the third man. I'd expect the Canadian to be given the nod though depending on what part Jack plays for Scotland in their match with the Czech Republic. The fitness and freshness of our engine room will be vital given two out of three of Celtic's likely starters of Brown, Ntcham and McGregor have had a fortnight's break. Suffice to say we will need to match their energy across the whole 90mins to obtain a positive result and the manager must get the balance right between defensive cover and attacking support.
Further forward will be equally important if we're to win the game. The impressive Ryan Kent is a certain starter in the free role we've seen him become accustomed to of late and the manager has plenty other options as well in attack. It may divide opinion but I'd expect Brandon Barker to make his first Old Firm start as the second number 10 and, despite his struggles for form so far this season, Alfredo Morelos arguably remains our first choice focal point. Ianis Hagi will also been keen to make his Old Firm debut and his level of assists this season and guile in key areas could see him given the nod over Barker. Again, the Romanian's inclusion against Austria tonight may well determine his status. Jordan Jones was sent off as a late sub this time last year and is an outside chance to start unless the manager fancies more of a 4-2-3-1.
We do have other attacking options in Jermain Defoe, Cedric Itten and, possibly, Kemar Roofe but despite Defoe contributing to two Old Firm wins at Ibrox in 2018/19, it's unlikely he'll start. Itten looked sharp and healthy in a late cameo for Switzerland against Germany on Tuesday night but would be a gamble to make the XI on his Old Firm debut. And, as much as Kemar Roofe's generic experience of big games will be useful going forward this season, no games in a month means a place on the bench is surely the best he can hope for?
All in all, I think the main thread from this preview we should take is one of progress. Rangers are still not the finished article under Steven Gerrard but, despite our fans continued apathy when it comes to international football, our players' involvement in such games is an indicator of our squad's overall quality. It's also a positive that the manager can draw from an improved pool of players as we look to compete on four fronts again this season.
In conclusion though, the biggest barometer of all remains how we fare against Celtic. Despite a superb win at Parkhead last season and largely dominating in the League Cup Final at Hampden, where it counted it was Celtic that came through: firstly at Ibrox last September then winning the Cup Final despite going down to ten men for the final 30mins (offside winner or not) and again after that New Year loss when we lost all momentum.
Therefore the onus remains on us to demonstrate we can be successful and offer a title challenge: not just at this stage of the season or before the winter break but right through until next May. Ultimately, Celtic were handed the league trophy last season on a Covid technicality but we still had it all to do to turn things around then. Seven months later, it's Celtic that are suffering from pandemic negativity so we must take advantage. A win on Saturday could be the first step to tangible success on what has been a long road to redemption. This Rangers team are capable and now must deliver.
Possible team (4-3-3):
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