All things considered, 2018 has been pretty good so far for Rangers supporters.
OK, arguably the main priority of appointing a new manager has seen a disappointing lack of clarity but most other news has been positive. Six wins and just the one defeat since our return from the winter break represents the best form in the Premiership and, as a result, we've not only taken second place again from Aberdeen but closed the gap to Celtic to just nine points. Furthermore, our work in the January transfer window was notable and although we're still missing a variety of key players due to injury, the team's performances have seen more of a feel-good factor return.
With that in mind, some fans have been asking if the impossible is likely: can we really challenge Celtic for the title?
In some ways, I can buy into that optimism. Our squad has improved, we have the best support in the country and results - outwith a frustrating and avoidable defeat to Hibs - have been good. As such, who's to say what may have happened by the time the final whistle blows in a fortnight's time after the third Old Firm game of the season?
Unfortunately, we're still far from reliable ourselves. Defensive errors seen us lose three goals last weekend against a poor Hamilton outfit and a similar lack of concentration cost us badly after working so hard to get back into the game at Hibs. Even Ayr Utd managed to take the lead due to tardiness from the otherwise reliable Wes Foderingham. This kind of slackness has certainly been prevalent lately and we can ill-afford more as we move into the business end of the season. Not to mention tomorrow's visitors Hearts offer much more of a challenge than the likes of Hamilton, Ayr and Partick Thistle.
This will be the third time we've played against the maroon side of Edinburgh and although we remain unbeaten, Hearts have been one of only two teams to be victorious versus Celtic domestically this season. Defensively they're also usually very good and in Christophe Berra have what seems to be an increasingly popular player of the year candidate. Craig Levein has put together a team with high-level experience (Lafferty, Naismith and Cowie remain influential players) sprinkled with a variety of impressive and confident teenagers. Make no mistake, this will be no walkover at Ibrox tomorrow!
However, what we do have is real momentum - perhaps for the first time since our return to the Premiership. And our recent glut of goals will be an interesting match for Hearts excellent defensive record. Manager Graeme Murty also has what appears to be a settled first team at his disposal and with more creative options than when we drew 0-0 with Hearts in the corresponding fixture in August, we have to be confident ahead of the game.
In terms of the Rangers team, I don't envisage many - if any changes - from the XI that won in Lanarkshire last weekend. Apparently Bruno Alves and Jason Holt will be available again but it may be only the latter is recalled to the team as the former Hearts midfielder provides that wee bit extra bite in the middle of the park that seems to be missing without a Jack or McCrorie. As much as Greg Docherty came onto a game at New Douglas Park last Sunday, Holt's extra experience may count for him whilst having Docherty as an energetic option from the bench could be useful later in the game.
The biggest difference and the main positive in the 2018 Rangers team is the options we now have. OK, due to some injuries (the aforementioned Jack and McCrorie as well as Dorrans, Wallace and Rossiter) our squad perhaps still isn't as deep as we'd like for now but generally we do have a better balance - especially when going forward. Previously, everything we had was down our right hand side with Tavernier and Candeias (themselves both surely player of the year candidates) being so important. Indeed, if either of them struggled in a game then the team struggled as a whole.
However, the capture of Jamie Murphy and, to a lesser extent, Greg Docherty has changed that and I think it's shown in the increased number of goals we're scoring. Now we can attack down both flanks equally comfortably with Windass and Docherty also offering a central threat. Most importantly of all now though is the influence of Sean Goss who arrived pretty much under the radar from QPR. The left-footed midfielder is arguably the player Niko Kranjcar was hoped to be for us: someone who can sit deep and move the ball effectively and quickly to help us get in behind teams. At the same time, he can push on himself, has a good shot and his set-pieces are usually dangerous. His acquisition and contribution, in my opinion, cannot be over-estimated.
The same should be said for the efforts of Alfredo Morelos who continues to prove himself the best striker in the country. Despite speculation over his future, the young Columbian shows time after time he can't get enough of scoring goals and his work-rate and love of physical battles say a lot about his professional attitude and overall fitness. Jason Cummings has done well in his cameos so far but will have to be content with a place on the bench for now.
Finally, with our attacking operations all in good order, I'm hoping to see some improved defensive work from us tomorrow. As a unit, all five players have shown their quality and Russell Martin looks to be a clever deal but we still continue to ship cheap goals. Perhaps Bruno Alves may return tomorrow to address that but I suspect Murty will give Martin and Bates another chance tomorrow. Hearts may be more renowned for their defensive strength but Rangers fans more than anyone else should be aware how dangerous the likes of Lafferty and Naismith (if fit) can be. I'm also looking forward to the battle between James Tavernier and Demetri Mitchell on our right side who are both important attacking outlets for their teams.
In conclusion, tomorrow is a big test for this new-look Rangers team. Our home form hasn't been great but the transfer window strategy seemed to be to specifically address our difficulties there. However, patience may need to be our biggest virtue tomorrow as I suspect a similar game to the August draw with Hearts primarily looking to cause issues on the break. A win is vital in any case - not only to apply even a small amount of pressure to Celtic but also to challenge Aberdeen - both of whom play each other the following day.
Sitting second tomorrow evening with another three points really would be an excellent outcome. Momentum, momentum, momentum indeed.
Possible team (4-2-3-1):
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