It's been a little over 24 hours since I put together yesterdays preview for last night's game against Legia. Nevertheless, after what was another fine result, I think Rangers fans feel even better than ever and the confidence obtained from the late win should increase morale further amongst the recovery ice baths at Auchenhowie this morning. Yet, as has been the case for the last two summers, doing well in European qualifiers means an extremely tough schedule of games so we'll need to recover quickly for the visit of Celtic in Sunday's top of the table clash. At least we're not travelling back from Russia after playing a game with nine men this time!
Our season so far
Twelve games played, ten wins, two draws, zero losses, 32 goals scored and only five conceded is impressive form in anyone's book. Sure, the likes of St Joseph's and St Mirren may not be considered Europe's (or even Scotland's) elite but wins over Hibs, Kilmarnock and negotiating the last two European qualifiers have shown Rangers to be a markedly different outfit this season. Yes, we still have that quality in possession but, so far at least, we've added a defensive steel to our game and an ability to find winners in games that we'd have previously dropped points. The worth of late goals in our Premiership opener at Rugby Park and at Ibrox last night cannot be under-estimated and that kind of dogged patience and resilience is essential if success is to be found.
Last year's champions have played the same number of games as us and have a very similar record, losing only one game so far to drop out of the Champions League. They've also scored seven more goals than us but, importantly, have conceded seven more also which shows although they're clearly very dangerous in attack, the additions they've made at the back haven't yet proven their worth. Moreover with their best defender Kristoffer Ajer hobbling off again early in their game last night, Neil Lennon may be forced into further changes at Ibrox on Sunday. Ajer has been playing right back of late so their new loan signing from Stoke, Moritz Bauer may make his debut in favour of Anthony Ralston. It will also be interesting to see if Lennon sticks with Nir Bitton in central defence and Boli Bolingoli at left back. This is a back-line the Rangers attack will want to ask questions of.
Further forward, Celtic have many threats of their own. From Edouard and Forrest to Johnston and Christie, there's a strength and mobility to Celtic that will mean if we switch off at all, we will be punished. Quite simply this will be the biggest test of the season so far for our defence and midfield so let's hope for the kind of physically dominant performances we seen at Ibrox last season where we won both games comfortably.
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If there was one other important benefit from last night it was the fact we didn't need to play extra-time. After last year's exertions with nine men against Ufa, it was obvious we struggled to match Celtic in a tired display at Parkhead a few days later. As such we started the game overly defensive and lacked sharpness on the ball. With that in mind, Steven Gerrard may be eager to freshen up his team on Sunday. But, given Celtic are the ones returning from a trip to the continent (albeit from a much easier game) then both sides will have players who've already played around a fifth of their expected games this season.
With that in mind, will we see a return to the team for the likes of Flanagan, Kamara and Defoe? Might Filip Helander even make his competitive Ibrox debut? How much longer can we persevere with what seems to be a jaded Scott Arfield? Ultimately, we need a good result from Sunday to maintain confidence ahead of a much needed international break. Even a draw wouldn't be a bad outcome but a win would take us top of the table by three points and would represent the perfect start to a season that is going to be long, gruelling and a test of all our characters.
In that sense, I think the manager may ask for one last pre-break push from his trusted lieutenants which should mean a familiar look to the Rangers starting XI on Sunday. Once again James Tavernier will be expected to lead from the right hand side and, if his eye cut swelling reduces enough, I suspect Borna Barisic may be favoured over Jon Flanagan at left back. Not only does the Croatian have the pace to deal with the threat of James Forrest, his set-piece ability could be vital again this week. Importantly, despite having to go off last night, he did well against Legia and that trust in him may be repaid on Sunday.
In midfield both Ryan Jack and Steven Davis were immense against the Poles so should be certain starters. Joe Aribo was a wee bit quieter last night so, after three straight games for the Nigerian international, Glen Kamara may well be favoured to strengthen our midfield. Similarly Sheyi Ojo never really got going in the Legia match and with Jordan Jones supplying the cross for Morelos' winner, he should get the nod to make his Old Firm debut. Scott Arfield was taken off last night and isn't in the best of form but his experience will see him start as well. Up front is a wee bit trickier to guess but I'd expect Morelos to beat Jermain Defoe to the sole striker's role.
Old Firm matches are often famously hard to predict. Form doesn't always come into it whilst, although Celtic have had the upper hand in recent years for obvious reasons, last season Rangers were a hugely different proposition and were the better team in three of the matches. With that in mind, Steven Gerrard may well look to fill his team with players who featured in those games. Indeed, with Celtic possibly having more Old Firm debutantes than us on Sunday then that may prove to be an interesting tangent to a annual contest that is full of fascinating nuances around it.
Yesterday's article title was 'Mission Possible' where I concluded we should be aiming to win the Legia and Celtic matches. We've completed the first task but now have an even tougher one to address. The destination of the league title is far from known and, hopefully, won't be until well into next year but Sunday's encounter will show us just how capable this new, improved Rangers side is. A carbon copy of the two corresponding games at Ibrox last year would be very much welcomed and a suitable demonstration of a much needed title challenge. It's only Friday but he battle fever is already abound.
Possible starting XI (4-3-2-1)
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