When Rangers director Alistair Johnston spoke of being 'ahead of the curve' after our Scottish Cup semi-final defeat to Celtic, many fans were rightly confused. Surely a 4-0 capitulation against our biggest rivals wasn't a sign of 'making progress' as Johnston suggested? More so when we considered our ongoing battle for anything down to fourth place in the Premiership table.
Johnstone did quality his comments somewhat by referring to tougher recent years and his point about 'not being swayed by the emotions of one game' may not have gone down well but he was correct about that to an extent. A decent win and performance against Hearts the following week did prove that. Unfortunately, a further humiliation at Parkhead quickly brought attention back onto the board, as well as Graeme Murty and his players with supporters again angered by this team's cowardice at the home of our greatest rivals. Murty, rightly or wrongly, was quickly made the scapegoat.
With that in mind the announcement of Steven Gerrard as new manager bought Johnston and the rest of the Rangers board some much needed goodwill (and time). Gerrard's impressive playing CV and an excellent press conference (even Dave King spoke well) meant the negativity of the previous couple of weeks was forgotten about with fans instead looking forward to next season as the thought of a Gerrard-led Rangers brought back a renewed confidence about the future.
That outlook has been undoubtedly helped by subsequent interim results on the pitch. Whilst our performances against Kilmarnock and Aberdeen were again disjointed and lacked quality, a first win of the season over Killie (whom Celtic couldn't beat this campaign) and a decent comeback at Pittodrie means we have second place in our own hands to grab this weekend. Hearts also beating this Sunday's opponents means Hibs can only top us via a six goal win which - our poor form aside - still seems very unlikely though we can certainly expect an attacking barrage at Easter Road.
Fortunately, the three games this season have all been very tight so as much as we can't be overly confident, Hibs' return of two wins from three of those games arguably isn't a fair reflection of the matches. In the first game last August, John Beaton may as well have had a Hibs top on as he sent off Ryan Jack for nothing after 35mins at 1-1, whilst James Tavernier was the guilty party as we threw away a fine comeback in the second Ibrox match in February. Ironically, in what was one of our worst away performances of the season, we were perhaps fortunate to take all three points at Easter Road in December. All in all, predicting the outcome of Sunday's game isn't an easy task.
From a Rangers point of view, after a dreadful first half reaction to a dreadful penalty decision awarded by the always dreadful Steven McLean in Tuesday's match against Aberdeen, it was slightly heartening to see us dominate the second 45mins and go onto grab a deserved equaliser. As such, one would hope the players would take some much needed confidence from that ahead of this week. Unfortunately, two crucial players from that game are both suspended with Alfredo Morelos and Ross McCrorie missing out.
Whether or not this will mean a change in system - as well as personnel with Graham Dorrans also injured - remains to be seen but it's unlikely with the usual 4-2-3-1 preferred. As such, other than replacing the three unavailable players, it's doubtful there will be further changes.
In defence, Jimmy Nicholl and Jonatan Johansson will have been encouraged by our clean sheet against Killie and only a dubious penalty conceded from at Pittodrie. As much as Rangers fans have rightly been concerned with the performances of Russell Martin since David Bates was injured in March, the return of Bates has coincided with an improvement at the back. Jak Alnwick has also done well in goal with Foderingham injured. James Tavernier and Andy Halliday have been less convincing of late at full-back but should see out the season there on Sunday. Martin Boyle may well miss the game but Brandon Barker will be a threat from wide areas in were key battles in previous matches.
Moving into midfield and this is where Rangers have really struggled to find any sort of balance of late. Often outnumbered and certainly outgunned, only Ross McCrorie has really shone since he was moved back into the engine room after injury. With him missing and Dorrans also injured again, the management team's decision on who plays here this week will be the key to obtaining a positive result. And we do have several options...
Greg Docherty is likely to be the direct replacement for the mobility of McCrorie with Sean Goss expected to provide the creative guile. Jason Holt's energy and work-rate may not always result in the attacking qualities we need but it would be a surprise to see Jordan Rossiter start after such a long lay-off - especially as the pace of the game is expected to be extremely lively. Ironically, none of the three expected first choice players being overly comfortable in a more forward role may help us gain an element of control in deeper areas in games we've needed it previously. The fitness of Josh Windass might also prove important in terms of our tactical choices against a Hibs midfield who usually impress.
In attack, once again Daniel Candeias and Jamie Murphy will most likely start in the wide areas - though Murphy's improved second half display against Aberdeen in more of a central, free role was noted by this observer. Glenn Middleton has being doing very well for the development squad on the left wing but it would be a huge surprise to see him make the team on Sunday. Up front, Jason Cummings is the obvious stand-in for Morelos and the former Hibs striker will be keen to do well up against his former clubs. The Rangers bench will be interesting with guys like Herrera, O'Halloran and Dodoo perhaps brought in from the cold for the last time in their respective Rangers careers.
In actual fact, they may not be the only players experiencing their last Rangers game this weekend. David Bates is off to Hamburg, whilst Martin and Goss will return to their parent clubs along with Cummings and Murphy (who may be the only ones asked to sign permanently over the summer). Hitherto fringe players like Halliday and Holt may also move on. Meanwhile, saleable assets such as Windass and Tavernier have been linked with moves away in recent days so it's not beyond the realms of possibility that Candeias and Docherty are the only members of my proposed first XI below that are involved next season.
Indeed, that stark observation is perhaps the easiest way to sum up what has been a disappointing season for the club. Yes, Alistair Johnston is right to ask us to be objective in our analysis but not enough real progress has been evident on the park and this has been compounded by our choices in the dugout. In that respect, the appointment of Steven Gerrard is something to look forward to and it seems obvious player turnover will be very high if we're to genuinely improve over the summer.
As I end our final match preview of the season, Sunday's result is important for various reasons but even if we do finish second in the league, as long as we remain so far behind Celtic and our football operation lacks proper management then unfortunately, we remain behind the curve. A win over Hibs would be a great way to secure European football and help us improve our fortunes. Season ticket renewals have again shown our wonderful fans to be up for it. Let's hope the players are too.
Possible team (4-2-3-1):
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