Saturday's Old Firm game at Ibrox will be the sixth time the teams have met this season with only one draw amongst four defeats in the five games so far for Rangers. Despite the obvious gulf between the two sides on and off the pitch, I don't think any Rangers fan finds that record acceptable and it was good to hear Pedro Caixinha felt ashamed after the 2-0 reverse from last weekend's Scottish Cup semi-final. He's not the only one...
Nothing highlights that shame more than the current league table. Celtic are 33 points in front of us, scoring 39 more goals and conceding 12 less - that's an astonishing 51 goals better off. They're also unbeaten and have arguably only started to drop points via draws after the league title was secured. We're well behind and still fighting for third place, never mind second. Thus, as much as any Rangers (or Celtic) fan won't subscribe to guard of honours when either team wins titles, it would be dangerous to not acknowledge just how far in front our greatest rivals are. Yes, our financial and existential travails may have given them a five year buffer in which to cement their position but, as it stands, Celtic are by far the best team in Scotland and we're lagging behind in every single area.
Now, my intention isn't to depress the reader of the article but to offer a sober analysis of the status quo. Sure, it's no coincidence court cases involving Craig Whyte and Sir David Murray run concurrently with our club's struggles and the arrest of prominent Newcastle Utd board members may also prove interesting as part of the issues that have hamstrung our club in recent times. However, at some point, and it has to be soon, we need to move on and the past has to be left in the past. Of course dubious retail deals and other contractual obligations leave a bad taste in the mouth but they're clearly not going to go away so live with them, we must. The future has to be our priority and we cannot keep picking at past scabs no matter how much they itch.
Thankfully in his statement which accompanied our season ticket renewal letter, chairman Dave King did seem to be of a similar mind. Whilst acknowledging the incredible loyalty of supporters he was rightly positive about an improvement in the club's infrastructure and promised funds for the new manager to put his own stamp on the team. Of course there was no mention of the scale of this investment - and it's unlikely we'll be able to match what Celtic spend - but it doesn't matter if we spend £1million or £10million, the targets have to be the right ones. And genuine quality: reliable, professional and fit players have to be a priority. We certainly can't afford the same risks that were taken last season. Joey Barton was always an unnecessary gamble, while as much as Rossiter and Kranjcar have been unlucky with injury, their fitness records were never good. Meanwhile, when we have spent money over the last 12-18months, it has been wasted badly on players that were never going to fit into the system we played. Would a Director of Football have sanctioned the best part of £2.5million on Michael O'Halloran and Joe Garner?
Every transfer is ultimately a risk but with finances tight we simply can't afford the same mistakes of past years. Yet, despite suggestions to the contrary, there has been no DoF appointment and little suggestion our scouting goes any further than agent recommendations and Youtube videos. With just two months until our probable first Europa League qualifying round in late June, is Caixinha to rely on the inconsistent and under-performing squad he inherited from Mark Warburton or can we expect improvements ahead of said qualifiers? It must be said a DoF isn't the silver co-efficient bullet some commentators suggest for Scottish teams but surely it would have allowed some proper planning ahead of an even tougher 2017/18 campaign.
With that in mind, the manager must have hoped for a lot more from his existing players. Yes, the bulk of them had arguably already shown they weren't good enough before he arrived but, small improvements aside (defensively at least) there are few players that seem capable of dealing with the expectation of playing for Rangers. In fact, it could be said only four or five have done enough to earn pass marks this season and most of them may not be here anyway come June. Foderingham, Hill, Hyndman, McKay and Miller are whom I'd consider our better players: two of whom are in their late thirties and out of contract, one will be going back to his parent club and the other two perhaps seen as assets we could sell to provide funds to bring in new players. If these five players do indeed leave that also means almost half of our current first choice XI won't start our first Europa League game. What was it I said about planning?
Out of the rest of the squad, it's difficult to make a case for keeping many players. Guys like Tavernier, Wallace, Wilson, Holt and Waghorn have shown their worth now and again but let us down too often to be considered players that will bring success. It doesn't also say much for the likes of Kiernan, Halliday and Forrester that youngsters such as Bates, Beerman and Dodoo have shown up better recently. Others such as Windass, Hodson and Crooks may be kept on but seem to be destined for mediocrity or the physio room. Depressing stuff but unfortunately this isn't a bad dream.
Saturday's match, however, presents an opportunity for some of these players to show they can be part of our future. Despite the largely poor results and performances against Celtic so far, there have been glimpses of good play in most of the games. Even last Sunday, we could have scored four goals late on once we realised our opponents weren't quite as invincible as our overly defensive tactics seemed to show. Yes, Rodgers' men are a good side - physical, quick and efficient - but as we showed at Parkhead last month and at Ibrox on Hogmanay, we can cause them problems. If we can match their strength, play at pace and be more direct then chances will come and, if we do as we did at Pittodrie recently, we can score goals easily enough.
As such, I'd remove the overly defensive setup from last weekend and concentrate on our threats. James Tavernier was our best player on Sunday but an apparent injury to Lee Hodson means he can't be pushed further forward. However, perhaps Josh Windass would work well with him on the right side - combing to stifle Sinclair. On the other flank, Barrie McKay has struggled recently but looked dangerous when he came on last week so he (or Joe Dodoo) should start. We'll also need more of a possession foothold so, if available, Jon Toral must be favoured over Andy Halliday. Similarly, both Garner and Waghorn were poor last week meaning Miller must surely start in the striker's role. In defence, David Bates didn't let us down but a fit Clint Hill would be preferable to allow Danny Wilson to provide more cover for Beerman. Tactically, we can't dismiss Celtic's quality but let's take the game to them for a change.
Even so, win or lose at the weekend, it won't take away from the challenges we face. Amidst that honesty though, there has to be a belief we can meet and pass those challenges. Saturday's result (or indeed performance) may help determine that belief on the park and it will also show what we will need off it over the coming weeks. I'm told Dave King is in Glasgow this week and will view first hand just how much work he and his board has ahead of them this summer. Now, more than ever before, he needs to lead from the front and repay the loyalty shown to him by 43,000 season ticket holders. He'll need his own wallet but, even more importantly, he'll need to make clear what he's doing to 'restore Rangers to the very top of Scottish football' by way of attracting new investment.
In that sense, the pressure is now on him just as much as any player. 8000 Celtic supporters celebrating their club's 48th Scottish League title in the Broomloan Road Stand on Saturday should help focus the mind.
Possible team (4-2-3-1):
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