On Sunday Michael Beale and his team can bring home the first silverware of the season with victory over Celtic at Hampden in the League Cup Final. As we were reminded of last week at Livingston, trophies have been a scarce commodity since our plunge to the lower leagues in the early part of the last decade.
So while fairly obviously our challenge is to bring home something shiny, it’s also about laying down a marker for the rest of the season and beyond.
Rangers, under Steven Gerrard’s management, worked extremely hard to pull ourselves up to the level of our city rivals. Hard-fought victories via goals from the likes of Ryan Jack at Ibrox and Nikola Katic at Parkhead revealed chinks in the armour of our previously untouchable opponents. From there we would eventually win a league title & go nearly two years without a derby defeat in all competitions. But that dominance has been lost and has become the exception rather than the rule.
Heavy defeats cast dark shadows over the copybook of Beale’s predecessor – a factor that undoubtedly played a part in his departure – and handed Celtic not only a direct points advantage but also a mental edge that perhaps shone through in the closing minutes at Ibrox when the teams met in January. Having seen the scoreline turnaround following a blistering second-half start by Rangers & having been outplayed for long spells, their late equaliser not only came from inner belief but strengthened it.
Rangers must now dent that confidence and bolster their own and while our performance in the league will have helped, such things are only really turned around by victories. Football, even as a big picture, is often decided by fine margins and even single head-to-head results impact confidence and form more than some managers would care to admit.
Alex McLeish entered Ibrox in a not too dissimilar position to Michaele Beale with the league almost out of reach, inheriting a team low on confidence but with two cups still to play for. Big Eck of course would win both trophies in victories that would set the groundwork for the historic treble that followed in 2002/03 taking his tally to five trophies from six. I wouldn’t mind the same again now, starting on Sunday!
Walter also returned and, in true Walter fashion, masterminded a victory at Parkhead with that unforgettable overhead kick from none other than Ugo Ehiogu. This was a signal that Rangers were back, his Rangers were back and it is that message that we must send out at Hampden this weekend if we are to start turning the tide and battling it out for titles and trophies once more.
With the pendulum having swung from Celtic to Rangers and back again in terms of momentum and success – ours being far briefer than it should have been – the importance of Sunday should not be underestimated. The league is looking unlikely and so a defeat would leave us only the Scottish Cup remaining to avoid a barren season. There’s also the fact that our cup record under Gerrard was a disappointing one and that’s something that takes more than last season’s Scottish Cup to turn around.
As we look to the game itself the dilemma facing the manager this weekend may well be quite how brave and attacking he wants to be at Hampden. Kent & Tillman are certain starters if fit but Cantwell has also impressed and Sakala was our best player in this fixture last time around. Playing all four would perhaps leave us top-heavy and open to being played through too easily by an attacking Celtic side and so much might be decided on which of those four are left on the bench, if any.
The goalkeeper and back-four I suspect now pick themselves following a consistent run of games, and a few recent errors from McLaughlin, this hopefully this will provide a solid foundation for the rest of the team. I also suspect our centre-forward will always be Alfredo Morelos in these games as his attributes are simply far better suited than those of Colak. Meanwhile Kemar Roofe is still working his way back to fitness and will provide a strong option off the bench if he is fit enough. The Columbian may not be the player he once was at Rangers but he can still be key to victory at the weekend.
Nicolas Raskin will also add some much needed dig and dynamism to our midfield and it’s important that the manager gets the right partner alongside him in the middle of the park. At Tynecastle we saw the best version of Glen Kamara but in too many other games we’ve seen him be a shadow of what we know he can be, and we certainly can’t afford any passengers this week. Does he therefore opt for the more solid option of John Lundstram or Ryan Jack? Getting this right might just be key to victory with the defence and most of the attack picking itself.
Results under Beale as we know have been better than the performances that delivered the points. Davies & Goldson have steadied the defence and some individual attacking performances have been great but collectively we’ve yet to see all the cogs in the machine work in tandem to provide the overall dominant, relentless performances we crave.
Under Gerrard too there was an almost tangible dislike of Celtic. They were to be treated with contempt and not given the respect they thought was earned. This was shown on the pitch and our results under Gerrard, despite rebuilding from a position of weakness, were impressive overall.
We lost that under Gio when these games were treated like any other or, worse, when we seemed to go into these games terrified of taking a hammering. That unfortunately became self-fulfilling.
One thing we cannot afford to do is start in the same slow and ponderous manner that we’ve seen in the first-halves of too many games, including the last Old Firm match. We need to get on the front foot and play with the tempo and hunger that usually wins these ties.
It may be a cliché but it is so for a reason as typically the team that wants it most emerges victorious. I expect we’ll see the same on Sunday.
Failure to deliver the League Cup to Ibrox of course isn’t the end of the world and we don’t need to throw our arms in the air and demand a sacking. We are very much back in the mid-Gerrard era in terms of rebuilding and Beale and his staff need time & backing to get this squad to where it needs to be. January’s transfer activity started that process but the summer represents a bigger revamp that’s perhaps overdue.
The above paragraph is not however a free pass for the weekend. At Rangers there is always pressure to deliver silverware and titles and we’re more than capable of winning at Hampden. The team will be roared on from the stands as always and it’s time for this team and these players to stand up and be counted. It’s time for them to show they can become winners.
Those of an older generation will know only too well our club’s strong affinity with the League Cup and having not won it since 2011 it’s time to rekindle that relationship and bring it back home to Ibrox.
It’s always been considered Rangers trophy, let’s return it home where it belongs.
C’mon the Rangers!
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