It's been a tough four or five years for Rangers fans. Administration, demotion, legal battles, boycotts and failing to return to the Scottish Premiership at the first attempt last season means the men from Ibrox haven't had it easy. In fact it wasn't until last month that (some of) these issues were put to rest when promotion was finally secured by winning the Championship title. Although we're not back to the pinnacle of the Scottish game yet, at last we're back at the big table once again.
With that in mind, you have to feel somewhat sorry for Hibs. Although they've played some decent stuff at times under Alan Stubbs, since their relegation they've now failed to acquire promotion for two years on the trot and will start their next campaign in the Championship for the third successive season. That's bad enough but an even worse record for the Leith side is their failure to win the Scottish Cup since 1902 - almost 115 years ago! Although we've not won it since 2009 either, if any Rangers fan (or player) thinks Hibs won't be motivated tomorrow, think again...
The lead up to the final has been markedly different for both clubs. Since claiming the title in early April, Rangers have clearly taken their foot off the gas - the semi-final win over Celtic aside. In fact, Mark Warburton's men haven't won a game inside 90mins for over two months. Sure, they've not played for three weeks either but it's safe to say their form towards the end of the season was poor - perhaps understandably so but disappointing nonetheless.
By way of contrast, if we look at Hibs, then their results have been somewhat better. Yes, they failed to beat Falkirk over two legs but they did beat us a month ago and got past the division's form side Raith Rovers in the play-offs. Suffice to say, while they may be more tired, they do have the momentum and may well be sharper for the early part of the game at least.
In that sense Rangers will have to be extremely careful. The two clubs have played each other five times this season already and Hibs have taken the lead in four of these matches - usually within the first 15 minutes. Yes, Rangers recovered in two of these games to get back on level terms (and go onto win) but Hibs are very much a confidence based side so it would be interesting to see how they react to going behind for a change. In any event, apart from the 1-0 win for Rangers last August, the rest of the matches have averaged over five goals a game so we can reasonably expect an open contest at Hampden tomorrow.
Moving on to the expected team for Rangers, as has been the case for various cup games this season, we'll have a few players missing. Dom Ball is suspended and Harry Forrester injured whilst Billy King and Michael O'Halloran are cup-tied. This should mean our first XI is reasonably simple to predict and I'll have a go now.
Starting in defence, this unit of the team has rarely changed over the course of the season. Foderingham, Tavernier, Kiernan, Wilson and Wallace have featured as a combination in almost every game and, barring any late injuries, that will be our defence tomorrow. Neither covered themselves in glory at Easter Road last month and if we're to take anything from that defeat, it should be to take great care throughout the game on Saturday. Our win against Celtic at Hampden in April shows we can play solidly whilst maintaining an attacking edge and that should be our aim tomorrow.
Moving further forward into the midfield the suspension of Ball arguably gives the manager his only real headache. If fit, Halliday and Holt will be certain starters but it's the third man that could prove important. Should Warburton opt for the ball retention skills of Gedion Zelalem or the experience and 'pitch geography' of Dean Shiels? Or perhaps the mobility of Nicky Law may be a more useful option? Certainly Hibs' midfield makes their team tick and both side's engine-room selections will be a key factor in tomorrow's outcome.
In attack, Rangers struggled towards the end of the season but in their last game welcomed back top goalscorer Martyn Waghorn after a long term injury. The man from South Shields is certain to start - most likely on the right and will switch regularly with Kenny Miller who will again lead the line. Meanwhile on the other wing, Gersnet's forum Player of the Year, Barrie McKay will again be tasked with breaking down the Hibs defence and his understanding with Lee Wallace will be another important aspect of our strategy.
All in all, as much as the team from Edinburgh haven't won this competition for over 100 years, we can be sure of a tough match tomorrow. Yes, we ultimately left them well behind as we surged to the title but the matches between the teams have been fairly close affairs and certainly very open in terms of chances and goals. Consequently, no-one of a Rangers persuasion should think this match represents an open goal. If we're to win the trophy for the first time in seven years then we'll need to be at the very top of our game and work hard enough to deserve it. The carrot is European football for next season. Mark Warburton and Davie Weir will be hoping the stick doesn't need to be used.
Note: Article header image reproduced from Willie Vass
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