As we approach our fourth and final group stage game of the revamped League Cup, it's worth having a recap of progress so far. On that face if it, three wins out of three, nine points, seven goals scored and none conceded is positive but it's difficult to analyse the performance effectively given the standard of opposition.
In the first game against Motherwell, as expected, we started slowly and could easily have been two or three goals down by the time we did take the lead early in the second half. It's fair to say we defended very poorly for large periods in that game (from set pieces especially again) but it's also fair to say, on another day, we could have scored six or seven ourselves.
With that in mind, the three games so far have been of a familiar pattern: lots of possession for the Light Blues along with the bulk of any territorial advantage and goal-scoring chances. For a manager that looks for us to dominate the ball and look after our pitch geography, the stats will keep Mark Warburton happy. Add in the pre-season friendly nature of the games and the requirement to take care over 'player load' then he will also be comfortable with our progress so far. A win tonight at Ibrox would also guarantee our participation in the last 16 knock-out phase so should that occur, it will be job-done in terms of our league season preparation.
In that sense, there's not much to complain about: after all we're trying to bed in nine new signings and the rotation involved in ensuring game-time for most of the squad was always going to hamper our fluency in such games. There's no doubt we should have scored more goals given our dominance in each match but the sharpness associated with this often takes the longest to find after the summer holidays. In general we've been reasonable enough and the new signings all look useful also. However, it can be argued we're still short of a first-choice centre-half and striker if we genuinely see ourselves as Premiership title challengers. Moreover, despite tonight's match, it may not be until after we play Burnley and Hamilton that we have a more accurate idea of our quality.
First things first though and we have another game tonight against a Stranraer side still in with a chance of winning the group themselves and unbeaten in their two games so far. Of course we'll be huge favourites to win but, just as Annan And East Stirling showed last week, Stranraer will be well-organised and tough to break down. Add in the experience of Scott Agnew and Christian Nade, then Brian Reid's men may well carry an attacking threat not seen in our last two games.
Looking in more detail at the Rangers team, it's likely there will be more changes from the XI that strolled to victory on Friday evening. In defence, we can expect Wes Foderingham, James Tavernier and Rob Kiernan to return given Matt Gilks, Lee Hodson and Clint Hill all played the last two matches. There is the slight chance Lee Wallace may be rested in favour of the versatile Hodson but I'd expect the skipper to start as well.
Further forward in midfield, it was a surprise not to see Joey Barton feature at Ochilview but perhaps the artificial surface affected that decision. Jason Holt also missed the game with a slight niggle so it may be both start tonight with a view to increasing their match fitness ahead of tougher tests. However, Andy Halliday has said he doesn't intend dropping out of the team easily and with Josh Windass and Niko Kranjcar both looking sharp so far, the manager won't find it easy choosing a first choice midfield as it stands. Jordan Rossiter has also returned from his exertions with the England under-19 team so he may well feature tonight at some point.
Meanwhile, in attack, after his knee injury last season, Martyn Waghorn has looked extremely fit so far this term and with two goals in the two games he's started, he'll be eager to get back into the team tonight. New signing Joe Dodoo also got off the mark with a début strike on Friday so he'll be very keen to carry that threat into his first home match. However, with McKay, Forrester, Miller and O'Halloran all doing well respectively also, it's not easy to guess what Warburton's favoured three-man forward line will be.
To conclude, as it stands, the manager has a surplus of options available to him right through the team which is a real bonus for any league challenge we can make. As last season closed (and after injuries to Waghorn and Forrester) it was obvious we lacked genuine depth and quality in the squad and that seems to have been resolved for the moment with the new signings and everyone fit again. Consequently, the next challenge for the manager is finding the right blend of players to not only continue our dominance of games but improve on the chances we take whilst ensuring we're not as soft at the back. Another good win tonight will help him make that decision and it will be interesting to see who is chosen to find that required solution.
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