It's been a long, hard six months for Rangers players. Yes, they might not work the kind of gruelling shifts many of our fans do and they all earn a lot more than most of us can even dream about but the best part of 40 games in less than six months is still a big physical and mental test. After Saturday's game we will have played 38 matches - the same as our whole domestic league season. That cannot be downplayed.
With that in mind, our lack of form recently is best explained by that incredible schedule of matches. Some players are clearly tired and we've lost several important players to injury as well. Meanwhile, if we look poor tactically that can be explained by a lack of training time - especially during the last month. This isn't excuse making as some of our poor play is far from acceptable but a pragmatic examination of the facts.
The Hibs draw was a good example of this. Fans, myself included, were understandably disappointed as we lost another late goal to drop two crucial points. After a fairly decent first half, we didn't do as well after the break. In the opening period, we played with pace, tempo and quality and didn't allow Hibs into the game at all - although Allan McGregor did have two good saves on the stroke of half-time.
The second half was different. Due to injuries we couldn't maintain the same tempo and certainly not the high press we had used to good effect. The defence sat too deep and the gaps between them, the midfield and Morelos became too big. We lost possession cheaply and couldn't support the Colombian. As such, Hibs came into the game both in terms of possession and territory. Yet until their late equaliser, they didn't really threaten whilst we, again, should have scored at least once more to make the points safe. Although the fans didn't enjoy our containment game, it was generally working and our counter-attacking should have yielded another goal. Instead, it was Hibs that took the sole chance they created and again we were left ruing what could and should have been.
Unfortunately for some, I don't see us being tactically any different against Celtic. Although the quality in the Scottish Premiership seems to have improved this season (and the table does suggest that) our budget is second only to Celtic so, busy schedule or not, we should be more consistent in terms of performances and results. Yes, we absolutely should expect Rangers teams to dominate against (most) teams at Ibrox but we should be sensible enough to acknowledge other factors can affect the way we play and the outcome.
To that end, although our Europa League adventure has now ended we're still paying for that run and the winter break can't come quickly enough. As such, while we're hoping for a high tempo again tomorrow and wish to take the game to our opponents, it simply won't happen for the whole match - even if we're playing well. Celtic will have periods of the ball, will create chances and will push us back. Both the players and the fans have to accept that and deal with it. Most importantly, if we're to play on the counter then we must take any chances that come our way at any point of the game.
In terms of the team, further knocks and niggles from the last few weeks may effect the manager's selection again tomorrow but I am hopeful one or two key players can make it. For example, I think Scott Arfield may just start the game and his attacking play would be vital in a team that's struggled to make their scoring chances count of late. Other than that it will be a case of seeing who is fittest, who is most confident and who wants to stand up and be counted for the manager. For all the disappointment of the other night, he will have been pleased with the efforts of Ryan Jack and Ross McCrorie in the middle of the park and they will be important again tomorrow. Meanwhile, Joe Worrall and Andy Halliday did very well in defence for the vast majority of the game against Hibs so we need not risk the likes of Wallace or McAuley.
I also don't expect a change of formation. Many fans are frustrated with the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 we tend to use but the majority of the time it does work - especially against more expansive opposition - so it would be a surprise to see us change tomorrow. Once again, arguably the biggest decision for the manager will be who to play in the attacking roles. Lafferty played wide left in the game at Celtic Park but didn't do much in an attacking sense. Interestingly Candeias didn't start that game and we seemed to miss his work-rate on the right flank. Will the likes of Kent be a surprise inclusion or should we persevere with the dangerous - though very raw - Glenn Middleton?
No matter the team, getting a result against Celtic is a big ask. The remain clear favourites for the SPFL title and, despite some struggles this season, remain a dangerous side full of attacking threat. As such, we'll need to work very hard throughout the team and we simply must take any chances we can create. As fans, we'll also need to be patient, support the side throughout and help the players through this final hurdle ahead of a well deserved few weeks rest and recuperation.
The last six years have been extremely difficult for us all. We're all absolutely desperate to bring back success to the club and often I think that desperation means we can be unreasonable in our expectations. This season has seen us progress and some poor results shouldn't mask that. On the other hand, it would be daft to ignore the issues that persist so the management team has much work to do as we enter 2019. However, we are getting there and we just have to appreciate our return to the top won't happen overnight. If we can add a few new players and some extra much needed quality then we should be even happier by the end of the season.
In the here and now though, a win on Saturday against our oldest rivals would be one large step forward and a huge boost to morale and belief. Here's to one more push before a well earned rest for us all. Let's hope 2019 is a prosperous one!
Possible team (4-2-3-1):
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