It's been exactly five months since Rangers started their competitive season. The World Cup Final was still to be played, most of us were on our summer holidays and it's fair to say (new manager notwithstanding) few of us were confident about making much progress (that's progress) in the Europa League again this season.
Fast forward to mid-December and a fairly impressive run in the competition reaches an important fork in the road this Thursday evening in Austria. It's quite simple: win, and we're through to the knockout stages despite being the fourth seeded team. Lose, and we're out. Now, speaking on the Gersnet Podcast this week, I was keen to highlight the positives of going further in Europe. Sure, we've already played over 30 games this season so we don't really need any more matches than we have already but there are too many good reasons not to want a win.
First and foremost, the income from going through keeps us ahead of schedule in the Steven Gerrard rebuild - for it's easy to forget we've still only just started that. Secondly, the profile from reaching the latter stages could be useful in terms of attracting any new players in future transfer windows. Finally, and perhaps most importantly in the short term, the morale boost would prove invaluable to a team that has looked somewhat jaded in recent days. The loss to Aberdeen, followed by a dreadful draw in Dundee on Sunday, means our good work at Tynecastle the previous week was undone in a matter of a few days. If (and it remains a big if) we want to make an SPFL title challenge, then momentum has to be built up and maintained for the rest of this month in particular. Ergo, whilst a win over Rapid may not win us anything domestically, it could still prove vital.
Unfortunately, despite criticisms of the manager for tinkering too often with his line-ups, more changes are likely to the starting XI for this game. It appears Ryan Kent is injured again and didn't travel whilst Candeias and Rossiter are both unavailable as well - the former to suspension after his ridiculous red card versus Villarreal, whilst the latter wasn't named in the 25 man squad in August. The good news is Steven Gerrard still has plenty options at his disposal, not least a return to action for Morelos and Arfield after recent SPFL suspensions. Meanwhile Borna Barisic is available after missing most of the Europa campaign with injury. We should be able to name a strong team.
Trying to anticipate a Gerrard starting line-up can be a fool's errand though and the defence is notoriously hard to predict. Yes, Allan McGregor and James Tavernier will be first picks but you can perm any three from six for the other roles. Despite some poor form, I think Connor Goldson remains the pick of the central bunch for me so he should start and it may be a coin toss to see who partners him between McAuley and Katic who perhaps deserves a return to the side ahead of Joe Worrall. At left back, Jon Flanagan started in the corresponding fixture at Ibrox two months ago as he was selected 'to do a specific job' by the manager that evening. Some poor form since means Barisic may be more likely but it wouldn't be a major surprise to see the Croatian actually play in front of Andy Halliday on the left flank with the latter doing well at left back so far when called upon.
Indeed, it will be further forward in the team where Gerrard will have vital choices to make after two disappointing attacking performances in the Scottish league. One would expect Morelos will lead the line but who plays behind him is less certain. As touched on above, could Barisic feature on the left or might the industry and unpredictability of Kyle Lafferty may be preferred? Eros Grezda is another option but he should start on the right due to Candeias' suspension. Glenn Middleton has struggled of late so it will be the bench for him. Centrally, we've missed the late runs and goal threat of Scott Arfield so he should be a stick on to return to the side.
That leaves us two more defensive roles to fill. Although Ryan Jack is another who hasn't really impressed in recent weeks, I think he has been better than the disappointing Coulibaly. It's a shame the on-loan Angers player hasn't been able to find his form after a family bereavement and it will be very interesting to see if he's favoured over Ovie Ejaria and Ross McCrorie who are our other options in midfield. In any case, Rangers will have to look after and use the ball a lot better than they've done of late if they've not only to keep Vienna on the back-foot but create the kind of chances we'll need if we're to win.
Even after two awful league results, I'm starting to get excited ahead of the game on Thursday. As the butterflies rise in my stomach I'm hoping this is equating to the roller-coaster climbing again towards another exciting run of good results. It's that kind of pace and tempo we'll need if we're to turnaround the disappointment of the last week and right those wrongs. We're more than capable of winning - let's hope all the players selected have that same confidence and belief.
Possible team (4-2-3-1):
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