The games continue to come thick and fast for Steven Gerrard and his Rangers players with their eighth competitive game in little over a month. However, given they remain unbeaten, who's counting?!
The positives of this busy schedule are pretty obvious: firstly with only a few friendly matches played, the earlier Europa League qualifying rounds were effectively our pre-season. Next these games not only allowed our vastly changed squad to get fit but to get to know each other and the management team's expectations. Finally, given our unbeaten record - despite two red cards in our first two league matches - it has seen confidence and morale build amongst the players and the supporters. Already the team and football looks a lot better than in recent years and that's vital if we're to challenge Celtic once more.
Unfortunately, there are also concerns. Because of the bad officiating and our own questionable discipline, we've only had 11 men on the pitch for 40mins of our first two league games. Add in the fact this is our third two-legged European game, then already it's obvious there's a demand on player fitness. As it stands the players have coped well with this but it won't be long before injuries and knocks start to niggle so Gerrard has understandably looked to rotate his squad. With players also unavailable tonight due to suspension (Flanagan has picked up three bookings) and rules (Barasic can't feature until the group stages) that means care has to be taken in team selection.
Indeed, the question of who plays tonight at left back is arguably one of the most important decisions Gerrard has yet to make. As expected, does he bring in Andy Halliday who struggled last season (but has done fine so far this term in short cameo roles) or does he shuffle his pack and opt for three at the back with one of Murphy, Kent or Middleton playing deeper than usual? Given Maribor haven't been short of goals this season - especially at home - then this will be a key tactical choice this evening. Moreso when we consider the Slovenians will be keen to score early to bring themselves back into the tie.
Interestingly, the manager suggested in his pre-match presser that, despite this, he won't be looking to sit deep and protect our lead. Instead he wants us to stay on the front foot and look to gain territory ourselves; perhaps enough to continue to create the kind of chances we seen in the first leg and score the away goal which would surely put the tie beyond the reach of Maribor.
Of course that's easier said than done in practice. However, Gerrard and the Rangers fans will have been encouraged with the way they've played away in Osijek and Shkupi already in the competition. In these games, whilst we didn't sit deep per se, we didn't commit men forward either; instead looking to maintain possession, control the game and keep things tight at the back. An early Rangers goal in Croatia helped and the same in Slovenia would do wonders again tonight.
In terms of the team, it's not just left back that raises questions. OK, other than that position the defence of McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson and Katic is pretty much a certainty though McCrorie may help form a back three should that system be considered. In front of a more probable four though, Ryan Jack is expected to return from injury to continue his fine summer form. Despite picking up a knock on Sunday, Lassana Coulibaly should partner him centrally with Scott Arfield perhaps favoured in a slightly more offensive position. Ross McCrorie may again be the odd man out here but will definitely play at some point.
Moving into the wider areas, Gerrard is spoilt for choice with Kent, Murphy, Candeias, Middleton and Ejaria all capable of featuring right across the attacking lines. In truth, any two of the five could be used effectively but I'd expect the experience of Murphy and Candeias to start the game. Meanwhile, the lone striker role will again be taken up by Alfredo Morelos. It's no surprise French side Bordeaux are the latest to signal an interest in signing the Columbian given his excellent contribution so far this season but suffice to say he won't be going anywhere for the figures reported in today's media.
That leaves us with the XI in the graphic below in what has been our favoured 4-2-3-1 formation this season. However, this side is far from guaranteed and that personnel and tactical fluidity is another positive in a summer that has Rangers fans smiling so far. Another performance of quality, grit and belief will be required to keep that grin on our faces tonight. This tie is far from done and there's also a long way to go domestically. Nevertheless the future is bright and I can't wait to see this Rangers squad and manager leap the latest hurdle in front of them.
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.