It is back to league business after the positive, yet frustrating result in Rotterdam midweek, as Rangers welcome Hearts to Ibrox on Sunday 1st December, kicking off a crucial month of football. Most would have taken the draw before the game, but because of Porto's win in Bern and the way the game against Feyenoord panned out, we could have came away with three points.
"Of course--We would've liked to have got the job done [Thursday night], but we can't control what happens elsewhere, " Gerrard said after the game.
It's a tough group. It is still in our hands. We move on.
Anyway--It is the start of the gruelling winter schedule, where we have eight tough games lined up in the run-up to Christmas. Success is all about grinding out results in December, and keeping any dropped points to an absolute minimum - last season we dropped 9 points in these fixtures. On paper this game looks like the easiest fixture of the lot, but Hearts will bring along some old and new threats. It's imperative we get this month off to a good start.
Recent results have been good, but performances have been patchy. Gerrard said "we saw two sides of us over the course of the game [on Thursday]", which sums-up our recent record. We started the game passively on Thursday night, and the performance against Hamilton seemed to fall off a cliff edge after an hour. Despite this, we have been able to grind out good results, staying unbeaten since early October. We'll need that grit even more so in the games to come.
It is fair to Hearts' form has been inconsistent since we played them last. They had been on a poor run of form before our last meeting, resulting in the sacking of manager Craig Levein. We dispatched them quite easily in the end in Austin MacPhee's first game as interim manager in the League Cup Semi-final. Since then they hit an impressive five goals against a stubborn St Mirren side, before following it up with a 3-0 away thumping at the hands of a resurgent Kilmarnock (all 3 goals coming in the space of 8 minutes). The defeat to Killie was labelled as "embarrassing", which saw only one player (Jamie Walker, rated 6) score above 5 out of 10.
Whether Austin MacPhee -- also Assistant Coach of the Northern Ireland National team -- is in with a shout at making his position a permanent one at the end of the season or not, his chances have certainly taken a hit after the defeat to Kilmarnock. MacPhee has been seen as a promising young coach over the last decade. He was credited with bringing a tactical nuance to a St Mirren side that defeated Celtic in 2011. He even caught the eye of the Mexico National Team, who appointed him as an opposition analyst for the 2014 World Cup. Mexico had impressed, but narrowly missed out on a Quarter-final place after a last gasp defeat to Netherlands. Rangers must be wary of a man that has a good tactical eye, even if his tools are lacking; a game against Rangers will prove too good an opportunity to recover his damaged reputation.
The Last meeting between the sides was, on the face of it, a straightforward 0-3 win at Hampden. However, it did take Rangers until added time at the end of the first half to score, when Helander popped up to beat the offside trap and stab the ball into the net. It had been a stifling game, in wet conditions. We had struggled to create any decent chances. A couple of quick sucker-punch goals at the end of the first half and then early in the second snuffed out any chance that Hearts may have had. The meeting prior to that game was against Levein, which was another stifling affair, from which we only came away with a point. They are a wounded side, with a man in charge looking to impress.
MacPhee is a tactically progressive coach and the formations Hearts have used in recent matches reflect that. They restricted Rangers with a 4-2-3-1, but then followed it up with a 3-4-3 in the 5-2 win against St Mirren; and their last match featured a 4-1-3-2 formation. It may be evidence of a team unable to settle, or simply a coach trying to set up his team to best take advantage of the opposition.
Gerrard said, "they've certainly got players that, on the day, are capable of hurting teams: Naismith, [...] Ikpeazu, Jamie walker is back in the picture, Mulraney -- they have got exciting players, that, if we're not at it, they can cause us problems".
Invariably, the man-mountain Ikpeazu leads the line, with Naismith and Walker occupying spaces in-behind -- all three have caused us issues in the past. It's likely that they will try to soak up the pressure and hit us on the counter. They also have an ability to press well, so our Centre-backs will need to keep the passes crisp and sharp. The right-sided Mulraney has a lot of pace, which they've used to good effect coming off the bench in recent games.
Hearts have no new injury concerns -- Souttar remains out long-term. Halkett was listed amongst the substitutes last week after completing his rehabilitation from injury, so the former Rangers man could feature. The experienced Glenn Whelan returned last week too.
Christophe Berra is one booking away from suspension, but it's doubtful he'll curb his more aggressive tendencies.
Morelos usually gets rested after his European exploits--a regular occurrence--with Defoe replacing him in the following domestic game, but Defoe did not travel to Rotterdam at all, so it is unclear whether he will be able to make an appearance. The only other 'forward' we have is Greg Stewart. Barasic needed a late fitness test midweek, but came through the game unscathed. Jones may make an appearance on the bench as he recovers from a long-term injury.
The majority of the Rangers team picks itself. McGregor, Tavernier, Helander, Goldson and Barasic have formed a strong foundation over the last few weeks, notching up 4 clean-sheets, so it is unlikely any changes will be made there. In midfield, Ryan Jack is too important to leave out, but Davis and Kamara can be rotated out to bring in specific options for the game. Ryan Kent is almost a certainty to start, as he gets closer and closer to getting back to his best after injury.
The changes will come up front and perhaps one in midfield. Although Defoe has not scored in a while, he may get the nod if fit -- Morelos needs to be rested to keep him in good shape for the month ahead. In midfield, it may be a game for the more creative option of Aribo, in place of Davis or Kamara, to open up this Hearts team. If Hearts hold us at bay, then the guile of Stewart could be a good option coming off the bench.
This is the start of a tough month of football; A good start is imperative. On paper, this game looks to be the easiest fixture of the lot, but we cannot underestimate this Hearts team. Austin MacPhee is a tactically progressive coach, who can set up his side to stifle us and cause problems. If we can blast through their game-plan early, taking our chances like Kilmarnock did, then it could be a comfortable afternoon. Otherwise, we're in for a tough test. It is important to deal with the physical threat of Ikpeazu and keep a keen eye on the deeper runs from Naismith and Walker.
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