Like most Rangers fans ahead of last week's match against Celtic, I was confident of a good result. Not 'cocky' as some of the more conspirational of Celtic 'legends' have since suggested - just, for the first time in a long time, cautiously optimistic we could beat our rivals.
And, for much of the game, that optimism was well served. Ironically, it wasn't until Celtic had a man sent off that that belief seemed to wane. The Parkhead men sat in and, as was the case before our resurgence after the New Year, we struggled to break them down, moved the ball far too slowly and then conceded an avoidable goal on the counter. The heads went down, our chance of a win was gone and even a deserved draw fell out of our grasp as the otherwise excellent Alfredo Morelos missed a sitter late on.
With all that in mind, it's been a difficult week contemplating what if. Many fans have been understandably sore and several players have been criticised for poor performances whilst Graeme Murty has also had his influence questioned. Indeed, it's not easy to take strong issue with such comments. Quite simply, we didn't play well enough and didn't react positively to Celtic losing a man. Morelos may have missed the literal open goal, but the whole team we're guilty of same. However, I do think we have to avoid being too despondent and there's no need to throw the baby out with bath water.
First things first, for the second match in a row, we did go toe to toe with Celtic and anyone denying that's progress needs to re-evaluate their outlook. Yes, we conceded three cheap goals but they were also great finishes from an experienced team that cost (and costs) considerably more than ours. We also missed three good chances but I'd be more worried if we weren't creating these. All things considered we're not too far away and, if we can maintain confidence (and realism), we can continue to close in.
As such, a returning to winning ways this weekend is vital. Not just in terms of re-energising disappointed fans but to show Aberdeen, Hibs and Kilmarnock that we're better than them. And a win against Killie - a team we've failed to beat this season - would go a long way to securing second place in the league. Yes, we're down after last Sunday's defeat but given Killie's midweek penalty kick defeat in the Scottish Cup, we're not the only ones hurting. It will be fascinating to see whom out of Murty and Steve Clarke can lift their dressing room most effectively.
In that sense, some fans suggest a few changes to the team might work best. Perhaps it's time to test a different combination in midfield? What's our best central defensive partnership now David Bates is also unavailable? Should Jason Cummings replace Morelos in attack or can they play together? Are we getting the most out of our wide players? When will Dorrans, Wallace and McCrorie return to the squad?
It's actually difficult to answer such questions easily as all points put forward have merit. After an impressive start (much like Emerson Hyndman last season) Sean Goss hasn't been quite as good in the last two games. In defence Alves and Cardoso didn't cover themselves in glory either last Sunday. Meanwhile, surely a rest for Morelos wouldn't go amiss at some point? The problems occur in that not enough of the fringe players available to us have played enough lately to really warrant selection. That's one of my main gripes with Murty so far in that he doesn't rotate his side - not necessarily from the start of games either - he just doesn't make enough changes during games and certainly not early enough; even from comfortable positions.
This means that as much as someone like Jason Holt can usually get himself up to speed there a few others who look as if they could step into the side and provide an upsurge of not just energy but quality. Cummings is one but there are doubts over Miller, Herrera, Dodoo, O'Halloran and Halliday whom, Miller aside in his best form, are unlikely to bring a spark to the team. Yes, we can ask questions of Josh Windass' contribution over 90mins but would any of these players offer more? Not as long as Dorrans remains short of full fitness.
A change of system then? This is perhaps more likely but it's uncertain Murty's preferred backup diamond formation is suitable tomorrow given Killie are not only strong in central midfield but have a real threat in wide areas. Yes, two up front against the likes of Ayr Utd might be agreeable but, tomorrow at least, it could be considered a risk. However, we are at home against a side that had to play 120mins on Wednesday night so it's not beyond the realms of possibility. It would certainly address the issue of our tactics being too predictable at times.
All in all though, and as I touched on earlier and in the article title, tomorrow's system and personnel might not be as crucial as the more fundamental aspects of football. Motivation and man-management after morale-sapping setbacks are vital and a huge part of breeding success in teams. Indeed, post-red card that's what arguably won Celtic the game last weekend and I'd argue it's been a big part of Steve Clarke's impressive work at Rugby Park this season. Our response to setback will be most enlightening at Ibrox tomorrow - players, manager and fans alike.
Possible team (4-2-3-1):
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