When the Championship fixtures for this season were first announced, it looked like a tricky closing period for Rangers. An away trip to Livingston where various teams have struggled (including ourselves in November), a rearranged match at Easter Road which initially had all the signs of a title decider and Sunday's final game in Paisley versus a St Mirren side that often raise their level against us meant we could never really relax about having a comfortable league run-in. Fortunately, that changed when Hibs capitulated from late February through March to ensure we were able to clinch the Championship and automatic promotion with several games to spare.
In that sense, the Scottish Cup semi-final win against Celtic aside, the last few weeks have had an obvious anti-climatic feel to them. Yes, we won that game in some style and the Challenge Cup was finally secured at the fourth time of asking but a drop-off in our form has been evident outwith these matches. In fact, it could be argued we've struggled to raise our game during the last six weeks with various disappointing defeats and draws in amongst unconvincing league wins. Suffice to say, our eventual domination in the league has led to us losing our competitive edge and, as much as our squad deserve immense credit for their achievements this season, no wins in our last three games is unacceptable form ahead of a vital Scottish Cup final in late May.
At this point though, it's worth going back to the start of the season. Before our league campaign was even underway, we opened with a somewhat unusual 6-2 away win against Hibs along with a comfortable 3-0 win at home to Peterhead in the League Cup. This set us up perfectly for our Championship opener - also against St Mirren but at Ibrox. I missed that game due to a family holiday but it seemed to be an exciting encounter and was full of goals and missed chances. Indeed, it wasn't until injury time when Dean Shiels bundled the ball home to finally secure the win and one wonders what would have happened if Stephen Thompson hadn't ballooned an earlier penalty. The subsequent further two games against them were equally close affairs with Rangers prevailing by a single goal after having to work hard versus a Buddies side eager to upset the odds.
With these three games in mind, clearly we had to fight hard for those victories and we'll have to do the same if we've to halt our bad run of results this Sunday. As Hibs, Alloa and Livingston have all showed, teams can sit in against us to good effect and if we continue to defend as badly as we have been, opposition sides will take advantage, no matter how much possession we have. Similarly, we've struggled to be as creative in attack and seem to be missing the high passing tempo and work-rate from earlier in the campaign. Add in somewhat laboured and predictive play in the final third then it's no surprise we're not scoring as many goals.
Arguably the main problem though is the concession of cheap goals. The manager reacted to this on Tuesday night by replacing Rob Kiernan with Dom Ball but the change didn't really work. The on-loan Spurs utility player looked out of sorts after playing in midfield of late whilst Wilson continues to struggle in various games. The former Hearts captain struggled to get into the team earlier in the season but seemed to have recovered his form as the year progressed. Unfortunately, his recent standard has plummeted once more so it will be interesting to see if Kiernan takes his place or if Ball moves back into the holding role. Tavernier and Wallace should start as usual at wing-back but the latter has also struggled with his form despite an excellent season overall.
Moving into midfield and Mark Warburton also made changes to this unit in Livingston. Although Gedion Zelalem had a decent first half, both Andy Halliday and Dean Shiels were below par and it wasn't until the rested Jason Holt was introduced that we were able to push Livi back. As such I'd expect Holt to come back into the starting XI with Shiels dropping to the bench. Zelalem may also make way for Ball but it could be Halliday rested on this occasion.
Further forward has perhaps been the most discussed area of the team this season. With so many attacking players (usually) available and our style so easy on the eye, we've only failed to score twice this term. Yet, in recent weeks, perhaps for the first time in this campaign, we're lacking genuine quality up front. For the first half of the season, Martyn Waghorn was excellent but an unfortunate knee injury curtailed his involvement. Thankfully Kenny Miller really stepped up during this period and has been one of our better players since the turn of the year. However, he's not been as effective of late while the loss of Harry Forrester has also impacted us in a creative sense. Barrie McKay has been fantastic but we've struggled to find an alternative on the right side with both O'Halloran and King (perhaps understandably) inconsistent in their contribution. The good news is that apparently Waghorn will be available for Sunday - though most likely from the bench - and Forrester may also be able to make late May's Final. Hopefully that will spur one of O'Halloran or King into a good performance as it's probable one will start.
No matter the team selection though, those picked have something to prove at the weekend. Yes, the league title was secured convincingly enough and of course April's Cup win over Celtic was a great confidence boost for promotion. However, now and again (and particularly recently) there remains lingering doubts about the genuine quality of our squad. In that sense, up to ten further changes are probable over the forthcoming transfer window and, as happened at Hearts last summer, it will be a much changed team that lines up on the opening day of next season. Of course that opening day could be a European fixture at home or abroad. However, if we want that extra luxury we'll have to rediscover our competitive edge to deliver it.
In conclusion, Sunday's match may well be the final battle of a long, league crusade but, for this team and manager, the true tests have still to come. Who will pass them?
Discuss this article
Enjoyed this analysis? Disagree entirely? Found a spelling mistake? Whatever your opinion, it's welcome on our popular and friendly message-board.