It's only late June and less than six weeks since our last match but Rangers' 2017/18 campaign begins in earnest on Thursday night at Ibrox. Indeed, for many fans, their first taste of Europe this summer won't be their typical beach holidays to Spain or Greece but to a small land-locked Duchy on the continent: Luxembourg.
Our opponents for this first game are little known FC Progrès Niederkorn, who are based in the south west of the country. Founded in 1919, the club has never won a game in European competition and was knocked out by Shamrock Rovers when it last competed in the Europa League two years ago. Out of their squad, only former Hearts defender (and Rangers trialist) Ismaël Bouzid will be recognised by our fans. Suffice to say, Rangers are massive favourites to go through and anything other than a comfortable two-legged victory will be a disappointment to our support - buoyed by positive news during the close season.
Although last week's renegotiated retail deal may be the best long term development, our recent activity in the transfer market is more relevant for now. Manager Pedro Caixinha has already made eight new signings and apparently his work there is far from complete with more new players expected to arrive - and various others to move on. Ironically though, it may well be only three of the new faces start tomorrow evening but, by the time the SPFL starts in early August, our starting XI should be markedly different.
First things first though and tomorrow night's line up should have a familiar feel - both in terms of personnel and in system. For much of last season, both Warburton and Caixinha utilised a 4-2-3-1 and I'd expect a similar strategy for the time being at least. Similarly, although players like Alves, Pena, Candeias and Herrera may herald a change in the way we approach some games, the manager may decide to gradually introduce his new signings - rather than an immediate sea-change in selection.
With that in mind, I believe only Fabio Cardoso, Ryan Jack and Dalcio Gomes may start tomorrow out of the new players. Bruno Alves is on international duty in Russia and Daniel Candeias ineligible , meaning both will be unavailable until the next qualifying round. Meanwhile Carlos Pena, Alfredo Morelos and Eduardo Herrera are still settling into life in Scotland so are more likely to be on the bench. This means various players from last season may get one more chance to show their worth.
At the back Wes Foderingham should be a certain starter in goal and he remains one of our more reliable players. In front of him, an orthodox back four should form the rest of our defence. Captain Lee Wallace is fit again so will be keen to impress on the left hand side after a mediocre 2016/17 season. The same can be said for James Tavernier at right back though both full backs will be excited to make the most of our improved midfield options. Central defence should be Cardoso and one other - most likely David Bates who did quite well in the latter part of last season. Going forward one would suggest Alves will partner his compatriot Cardoso but Bates and both Danny and Aidan Wilson will be keen to play their part.
In midfield, the manager has a wealth of options. New loan signing Dalcio Gomes can feature in most roles but may start his Rangers career in a wide left position given the frustrating uncertainty over Barrie McKay's future. This should mean Ryan Jack and Jordan Rossiter are our first picks for any holding roles though I suspect the latter may be gradually brought into the team after almost a year out through injury. Jason Holt will be keen to play there for now but it could be Caixinha prefers the also fit again Niko Kranjcar in a deeper position to enable Pena to play in an advanced role. On the right flank, winger Candeias (also bought from Benfica) is likely to be the preferred option but is unavailable for this round of fixtures meaning Martyn Waghorn may start the season in this wider position ahead of Josh Windass. Others such as Andy Halliday, Harry Forrester, Michael O'Halloran and Joe Dodoo seem to be surplus to requirements after not being selected for the UEFA squad.
This leaves us the important issue of attack. Last season we didn't score anywhere enough goals and various issues contributed to such. Our strikers were often isolated or unsure of their role. The supply was often inconsistent or poor. Equally the finishing at times was woeful and, other than Miller, none of our forwards can say they contributed on a consistent basis. For now, we may stick with just the one player in attack but it will be fascinating to see if the manager decides to go with two strikers as the season goes on. Both Herrera and Morelos prefer a central position and I'm sure I can't be the only fan who'd like to see them play alongside each other.
All things considered, the possible team below shows we're still in a transitional state when it comes to players and tactics. However, that shouldn't preclude us from a comfortable win tomorrow and over the two legs of this first qualifying round. A likely tie with AEL Limassol of Cyprus awaits and that will give us more opportunity to bring in further changes. Despite the positivity of the last few weeks the manager is under pressure to deliver results immediately and show the board's investment in his vision was correct. Starting now means a long season but it must be better than the last. Failure is not an option.
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