MURRAYFIELD -- It was a black February night as Rangers were humbled 1-4 by Hearts at Tynecastle. Mark Warburton and his men trudged off the park, unable deal with the intensity that Hearts showed, both physically and mentally. It was the beginning of the end for Warburton, and Rangers would yield 2nd place not long after and Graeme Murty would be put in charge. Flash forward seven months, and not much has changed.
The previous meetings between the sides last season epitomised Rangers' form and mental fragility. Reasonable wins at home -- 2-1 and 2-0, respectively -- were contrasted with defeats away from home. The 1-4 defeat was particularly galling as Rangers showed a real lack of character and intensity. It wasn't until Pedro Caixinha arrived that we were able to beat another side in the top four away from home.
The last meeting this season followed a different pattern, as the sides played out a dull 0-0 draw. In the midst of managerial uncertainty, caretaker manager Jon Daly set up ultra-defensively in a low block at Ibrox. They conceded little space, and brought very little to the attacking third, having only 7 shots the entire game with none on target. Rangers in contrast dominated, but couldn't break down a stubborn defense.
Hearts seem to be half-way through a stabilisation job, after Craig Levein was appointed permanent manager, replacing Ian Cathro. Hearts record this season has been indifferent. They don't score many, but don't concede many either. A decent 1-0 win against St Johnstone last week was followed up with a disappointing 0-1 defeat to Edinburgh rival's Hibernian. Levein, unsurprisingly, has set them up to be difficult to beat, while still struggling to create and score chances. It could well be a repeat of our last meeting.
Hearts have shown some flexibility in their tactics. Whenever they are expected to dominate a game they have lined up in a flat 4-4-2. But, whenever they've faced a 'better' side, or simply matching them, they've lined up in a 3-5-1-1, or 3-5-2. Whatever the formation, Levein has them compact and well-drilled. Their main attacking play is through the wings, especially Walker.
Our form has been indifferent for too long. A humiliating result against Motherwell was followed up with a deflating draw against Kilmarnock. The players have not reacted, and it's hard to foresee any team that will gave us pride after 90 minutes.
Jack was stupidly suspended midweek, and Alves will also be suspended for Saturday's trip; with Dorrans injured too we're down to the bare bones. Pena may return after a midweek knock, and Cardoso may have sufficiently recovered from last week's assault. We could see a youthful centre-back pairing of Wilson (Aidan) and McCrorie -- the latter is one of the few bright sparks this season -- though Aidan's namesake Danny is perhaps most likely to face his former team. Holt may well retain his place after a goal-scoring performance midweek. Barjonas came on for the final 15 minutes against Killie and may well be forced to play with our desperately thin squad. We'll likely continue with our 4-2-3-1, but it's anyone's guess who plays:
The unknown variable with regards to this game is the venue. Tynecastle has been a horrid place to visit over the last few years, with a small pitch and a baying crowd that are almost snapping at the ankles of our players. This game will be played at Murrayfield, as the finishing touches are put to a new stadium at Tynecastle. Murrayfield is a bigger pitch, set back from the crowd. We'll also be able to bring a substantial contingent of our own to boost the morale of the players.
Lafferty has been in good form lately, scoring against St Johnstone last week. He will be a handful: he's quick and powerful, albeit lacking in technical ability; our defenders will be troubled. Our defenders will need to be aware of him. Of course, Walker will be the main attacking outlet on the right of midfield. John has shown a defensive fragility thus far, so he'll need to be sharp to deal with Walker's speed and constant cutting inside onto his favoured Left-foot.
Graeme Murty takes charge for what will be his second spell as caretaker manager at Rangers. Murty did an admirable job last time during in what was a difficult spell, but results were not great. A 50% win-rate against teams we should be beating, like Inverness and Dundee was disappointing. Murty's main achievement was gaining a point away to Celtic -- a surprising result considering we'd failed to take any points under our previous manager; and haven't since, for that matter. We shouldn't expect anything special, tactically. Murty should have us organised, with a 'defensive', reactive style.
Speaking to the 'media' before last Sunday's League Cup Semi-final, Pedro Caixinha summed-up what it means to be Rangers: "We only have two options: Win, or Win." Although these are just words -- words that ultimately did not materialise on the pitch, costing him his job -- this type of mentality has been missing for far too long. Hopefully we see the character required of a Ranger against a formidable foe. It will be a battle. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more".
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