With only a few days left until the start of the new Scottish league season, Rangers fans are in reasonably fine fettle ahead of both the away opener in Aberdeen and, firstly, tonight's home Europa League second leg qualifier against Osijek. Yes, the performances so far - in the competitive games at least - may not have raised many eyebrows but the results, at least, have been good. Add in impressive friendly wins at home to Bury and Wigan with no goals yet conceded across all five games so far then not only have Rangers demonstrated a defensive improvement but they have shown an ability to get forward at pace to create chances and score goals.
In that sense, Steven Gerrard may be caught in two minds somewhat ahead of this evening's game. Does he, as in Macedonia, instruct his team to keep it tight, sit deep, control the game and try to create on the counter? Or, should he look to build on the advantage gained in Croatia and expose any weaknesses in what is a reasonable Osijek outfit? The sell-out crowd attending the game may favour the latter but, initially at least, Gerrard hasn't been afraid to show his pragmatic side so I wouldn't expect any attacking fireworks from the off tonight.
It's in that defensive vein, Gerrard has sought to his improve his squad with the bulk of any transfer cash spent on the £5million central defence partnership of Connor Goldson and Nikola Katic. Add in the experience of Allan McGregor and the physical reputation of Jon Flanagan then we should no longer have a defence that leaks cheap goals. Some set-piece lapses aside, that has been evident from our games so far but Osijek certainly carry more of an attacking threat than any of the other teams we've faced over the summer.
With that in mind, I expect one or two changes from the team that snatched that important away win last Thursday. Firstly, with Scott Arfield fit again, I think it's likely he'll replace Ovie Ejaria in central midfield. The on-loan Liverpool youngster has performed quite well so far but Arfield's experience and more rounded game will be necessary this evening. It wouldn't surprise me to see last season's player of the year Daniel Candeias come back into the side as well instead of Ryan Kent. Again, the on-loan Liverpool player did OK last week but, despite a poor start to this season in the Shkupi games, Candeias' relationship with Tavernier is one that shouldn't be broken up so easily - especially given the threat Osijek carry in wide areas. Candeias played well against Wigan and his creative influence can't be under-estimated.
That leaves the tough-tackling Lassana Coulibaly and Ryan Jack to sit that bit deeper and with both midfielders doing well so far this season, that gives the Rangers manager the kind of platform he'll need to not only lock opposition sides out but dominate other midfields to secure possession and create chances. In that sense, I'd expect Jamie Murphy and Alfredo Morelos to be our main attacking threats and both will be keen to continue their goal-scoring form in Europe so far - even if both their performances have been rather inconsistent.
The good news for Rangers fans is that we now have strength in depth should changes need to be made. Players like Kent, Ejaria and Glenn Middleton will disappointed not to make the possible starting XI below but will be needed throughout this season. The same will be said for players such as Ross McCrorie, Umar Sadiq and Greg Docherty. The enigma that is Josh Windass hasn't yet impressed this season but, if he does stay at the club, then there's no doubt his creative input will be important as well and he may well start tonight!
Indeed, with the manager keen to add at least two further players to his squad - these being another central defender and striker - and with injured players such as Rossiter, John, Dorrans and Wallace still to feature this season, there's no doubt our squad appears bigger and better than last season's.
Ultimately though, that will only be decided on the pitch and with good results. It's early days but it's been a case of so far, so good in our pre-season preparations and it's vital we build on that with European progression tonight and a positive league start as well, not just against Aberdeen on Sunday but right through August and September. Not only will that deliver confidence and self-belief to the players and fans but it will lay down a marker to other clubs in Scotland. For too long now we've been too passive, too negative and too easy to beat on and off the field.
It's time that changed and there's no time like the present.
Possible team (4-2-3-1]:
Discuss this article
Enjoyed this analysis? Disagree entirely? Found a spelling mistake? Whatever your opinion, it's welcome on our popular and friendly message-board.