Having just returned from an extended family holiday in the unspoiled blue skies of the Ionian Sea, I know just how hot it is in Eastern Europe at the moment. With temperatures well over 30degC, the heat will certainly be on the Rangers team that plays in Macedonia later this afternoon. However, anything less than progression into the next Europa League qualifying round would only increase that heat further - both on the manager and his players, not to mention those that sanctioned all the summer changes.
Fortunately, unlike last year, I'd expect Rangers to obtain a positive result this evening. Yes, Shkupi showed themselves to be no mugs in the first leg and could easily have taken an away goal from Ibrox but, despite Rangers being inconsistent and heavy-legged at times, it really was 2-0 going on 6-0 and only poor finishing stopped what should have been a home rout.
No matter, Rangers can ill-afford complacency later as it was only very late in the game, they grabbed that all-important second goal which should offer the kind of cushion we lacked this time last season. This will enable Rangers - if not to sit in - but to retain a solid shape and look to make the most of any space on the counter against a Shkupi side that did leave gaps when we played at pace at Ibrox. Although it will again be left to the recently misfiring Alfredo Morelos to be our main goal-scoring threat, the likes of Jamie Murphy and Josh Windass will support him from deeper, wider areas and they may be the key to making the tie safe.
Arguably the main positive from the first leg was how much stronger Rangers looked defensively. Not only did Connor Goldson and Nikola Katic stroll through the game at centre-half, the more defensively-minded Jon Flanagan compliments the attacking James Tavernier nicely at left-back and that should offer us peace of mind in defence. In turn, although losing Scott Arfield to injury is a short-term midfield blow, we still have several options in the engine room and a combination of McCrorie, Jack and Candeias might be favoured tonight, with Docherty and Ejaria equally keen to be involved at some point.
Although we're still short of 2-3 further signings (especially in attack), we do have depth in the squad and it will be interesting to see if Steven Gerrard changes his formation tonight with the opportunity to go to three at the back apparently interesting him giving the pursuit of Jake Cooper from Millwall. Aidan Wilson and Kyle Bradley do offer that option via their inclusion in the squad. Unfortunately, it seems this game has come too early for Umar Sadiq and Lassana Coulibaly who are a couple of weeks behind the rest of the team in their pre-season preparations. As such, Zak Rudden may be asked to offer a goal threat from the bench this evening. Meanwhile, left-sided players such as Declan John and Glenn Middleton will also want to make the team with the latter impressing a substitute last week.
In conclusion though, other than Ryan Jack for the injured Arfield, I'd expect the same XI that started the first leg to be asked to finish the job tonight. It may well be the system is changed slightly to more of a 4-2-3-1 with Candeias moved back out to the right wing but, even if the 4-3-3 from last Thursday evening is retained, Rangers should have more than enough in their locker to be comfortable this afternoon. No complacency and no excuses please. Let's get the job done.
Possible team (4-2-3-1):
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