It's been a little over seven weeks since our last competitive game and still just under a year since we began last year's Europa League campaign but tonight in Gibraltar, we're already underway for the 2019/20 season.
Just along the southern coast of Spain where many Rangers fans will be already be on holiday, for the players these fans support, it's back to work later in an overseas territory we've not competed in before. Yet as Celtic found out a few years ago on the artificial surface of Gibraltar's national stadium, nothing is guaranteed in terms of a positive result so nothing should be left to chance for Steven Gerrard's men tonight.
In terms of last season's efforts, despite there being no trophies nor success per se, the common train of thought amongst fans and critics alike is that Rangers did improve. First and foremost they went toe to toe with Celtic in each of the four games between the teams, including comfortably winning our two home matches. Indeed, as much as there may not have been a genuine title race, Rangers did, for a while at least, did keep it interesting. Moreover, in terms of our European adventures in 2018/19, for what was a new squad and management team, to win four qualifiers and just miss out on qualifying from our group stage, was also heartening and should provide confidence for this summer's pre-domestic action.
Of course Steven Gerrard isn't a man for sentiment or resting on his laurels. Although he'll still want to move on the better part of ten players in our squad, he's already signed several with a few more likely to arrive depending on our European progress and who else actually does leave. With regard to the new signings, Rangers fans will be happy with how they looked on Sunday in a fairly decent 5-0 home win over an admittedly weak Oxford Utd side. Edmundson, Aribo, Hastie, Stewart, Ojo and Jones all did well on their Ibrox debuts whilst existing players like Polster and Docherty also felt like new signings too. Although Alfredo Morelos is struggling with a 'slight' groin strain, the manager's wealth of options further forward in the team makes us very difficult to predict in an attacking sense and Jermain Defoe looks increasingly sharp when called upon. Yes, summer friendly wins (or defeats) shouldn't be used to define a team's forthcoming season but there were plenty positives on show against Oxford so the manager will be pleased to have a selection headache going into the competitive stuff.
With that in mind, his team isn't all that easy to predict. Despite not featuring in Sunday's friendly, Allan McGregor should be in goal tonight and his early season Europa form last season was key to our progression through the qualifying rounds. Similarly, Connor Goldson and Niko Katic were the central defensive pairing throughout July and August last year and I'd expect that to be the case for this year too given the way they finished the season as well. Captain James Tavernier will remain first choice right back of course but it's at left back where we have our first uncertainty. Jon Flanagan also started and finished last season pretty well there but is out until next month after undergoing a hernia operation. Meanwhile, despite now becoming Croatia's first choice left back since signing for Rangers, Borna Barisic has struggled to look anything other than lost when selected for us. However, I do think he may start tonight instead of Andy Halliday and the Croatian simply must step up this season if he wants to stay at the club.
Moving into midfield and this is where the manager's options make it very difficult to guess how the engine room will be formed: just ask Jordan Rossiter and Ross McCrorie how tricky it is to get a game here. In addition to the actual personnel choices, the formation is also uncertain, though with Jermain Defoe likely to start, I'd expect the 4-3-2-1 used latterly and successfully towards the end of last season will be deployed tonight. That means perming a slightly deeper three from Aribo, Davis, Docherty, Jack and Kamara with a further two from Hastie, Jones, Ojo and Stewart in the advanced roles to support Defoe. Good luck trying to be right there!
Given Morelos is injured and Kyle Lafferty on his way out, obtaining another striker has to be a priority for the manager. Greg Stewart did well in his cameo there for 60mins on Sunday but will prefer to play just off someone else in the main. As such I'd expect us to sign another striker - if not two if Morelos leaves as well - before the end of August. Poker will be being played there and just how much money we can raise from the sale of the Colombian will decide the quality and timing of any new acquisitions. For now, Gerrard will be content with the options he has up front but I do expect at least one more striker and defender to arrive. Any fees raised for the likes of Foderingham, Holt, Dorrans, Grezda, Dodoo and Lafferty will help there, especially if we can hold onto James Tavernier for as long as possible.
All things considered, despite the importance of tonight's match and future qualifying ties, this is still very much a Rangers team in progress. There will be seven changes from the team that started against FK Shkupi last July, and whilst missing players such as Candeias, Arfield and Morelos may still have a future part to play at the club, this season's team will be markedly different from last term as we move through the qualifiers. Crucially though, expectations will have also increased and the next few weeks will see just how these new players, and the management team responsible for selecting them, cope with that demand.
So far at least, Steven Gerrard certainly hasn't looked anywhere near as 'terrified' of the task facing him as some of his dafter critics claim but he will be aware any honeymoon period he had has now ended and progress this coming season must be more tangible than pointing to a few decent wins. Wrestling the title from Celtic will be extremely tough and repeating or improving upon last season's European campaign equally tricky but those - along with success in the domestic cups - are the measures by which he'll be judged on. He and his team can start with no monkeying around on the Rock tonight.
Possible team (4-3-2-1):
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