We're only three weeks into 2021 and already it seems a lot longer since we beat Celtic on the 2nd January at Ibrox.
It's fair to say we weren't at our best in that match and, although Celtic's supposed dominance actually petered out midway through the first half, the red card for Nir Bitton was a big help, as was the rather fortunate winning goal that came off Calum McGregor. However, after various pieces of misfortune in recent times, one doesn't look a gift horse in the mouth.
That Old Firm topped off what had been an excellent December results-wise for Rangers. To win all our matches in the Premiership through that month and win our Europa League Group really was impressive with only a defeat against St Mirren in the League Cup by way of disappointment. Therefore, to start the New Year with the win over Celtic then go onto comfortably beat Aberdeen at Pittodrie the following week really helped minimise any worries about repeating recent years' poor post-winter break form.
Unfortunately, these wins were followed up by a frustrating 1-1 draw last weekend at Fir Park. A slow start followed by the concession of an avoidable opener left us with work to do for the second match in succession against Motherwell and this time, despite pushing our opponents back for 70mins, we couldn't grab more than a deserved equaliser and didn't create a huge amount outwith that, even if we did have one or two good chances to win. Although we dominated, especially in the second half, our distribution and crossing was poor, we took too many touches and, Itten aside, lacked composure when chances did appear.
As such, the post-match reaction to dropping points was rather harsh but not altogether unexpected. Although we remain unbeaten in the league which really is extraordinary, and results very positive for the most part, it's difficult not to point to some indifferent form of late. Of course, the loss of experienced players like Jack, Arfield and Roofe hasn't helped and whilst others have stepped up in their absence, some constructive and balanced criticism is also agreeable.
To that end the inconsistent contribution of key players like Morelos and Kent is frustrating and it's fair to say Joe Aribo doesn't seem quite as effective in the unavoidably deeper role he's occupied recently. Moreover, player of the year elect James Tavernier hasn't quite offered the same threat as earlier in the campaign and other fringe players like Zungu, Barker, Jones and Stewart don't appear to be trusted as much as we'd all like. On the other hand, after such a busy December, it's hardly a surprise to see some fist choice players appear a wee bit jaded (though with no less effort) and it's simply unrealistic to expect great results and performances week after week. Let's not forget we've now played 35 games this season and we're not yet into February!
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With that in mind, recent weeks has seen our schedule open up somewhat with next Wednesday's trip to Hibernian our first midweek match since beating St Mirren late last month. We also have a free weekend next week and the manager has said in today's press conference that Ryan Jack will return to the squad for Ross County with Roofe also very close to joining him. He's also expecting an early February recovery for Arfield and I suspect we'll see at least one new player (one being Scott Wright) by the close of the transfer window. If we can have a fully fit squad by the resumption of our Europa League travels, then what a boost that would be for our intentions of success at home and abroad.
Taking one game at a time though as the manager likes to repeat, we have another tricky match at Ibrox tomorrow against a Ross County side who have had some very positive results since John Hughes became manager last month. There's no doubt that with wins against Hibs, Aberdeen and Celtic this season, County are a very capable side and usually tough to beat with a stubborn defence. Indeed in our last fixture against them at Ibrox, it took a penalty and an 88th minute late clincher to deliver the points and although our 0-4 win in Dingwall last month looks easy now, they made it difficult for us for long spells and could easily have taken the lead themselves. As such anything less than full attention and application from the opening whistle could cause problems.
Consequently, although I can't see a Jack or Roofe starting tomorrow, I believe Gerrard may well make one or two changes. Ryan Kent's obvious lack of consistent form means Cedric Itten may be given a deserved opportunity in attack with the big Swiss forward giving us a different option should we be forced wide and into crosses again. Meanwhile it wouldn't surprise me to see Ianis Hagi and Joe Aribo swap positions in the XI with both struggling to affect the game last week. It could also be more likely we move from our more usual 4-3-2-1 to more of a 4-2-3-1. The inclusion of someone like Barker or Defoe in the starting XI would be more of a surprise but the manager may also have one eye on Wednesday's match in Edinburgh. Certainly, the more players we can get involved in the coming weeks, the better in terms of maintaining a freshness through a period that is always tough on the legs.
Finally, it's obviously very easy right now to look across the Clyde when examining our chances of winning our 55th title. Their "elite training camp" in Dubai (see, I can use quotation marks too) and resulting poor results means our 20 point lead at the top of the table looks even wider than that fine river. However, it would be foolhardy to become complacent and one has to hope our December defeat in the League Cup, along with last week's draw, has allowed the manager to refocus the minds of all our players when it comes to achieving success. Undoubtedly there will be more twists and turns as we move through the rest of this season but if we play it straight in terms of attitude then this title should finally be within our grasp. We must not let this opportunity go so getting back to winning ways tomorrow is the ideal chance to show our credentials.
Unlike last week, let's hope we're raring to go!
Possible team (4-3-3):
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