Hearts are looking to extend their lead over Rangers to 11 points when they visit Ibrox on Sunday. Here’s all there is to know about Steven Gerrard’s men.
Their team news
Ryan Jack is expected to rejoin the squad. The midfielder has not featured since straining a calf while on Scotland duty last month. He was tipped to return against Rapid Vienna in Thursday’s Europa League clash but his comeback was delayed. Long-term knee injury victim Jamie Murphy remains out while Lee Wallace faces another week or so on the sidelines with a groin injury.
Even at this early stage, Gerrard has called it “must-win”
“Hearts was a must-win game whether we won, drew or lost today,” said Steven Gerrard after the Livingston defeat. The Ibrox side’s poor start to the league has essentially split the mood of the support into two separate factions. On the one hand, they could not be happier with their exploits in Europe and fully believe the Liverpool legend to be the right man to take them forward. On the other hand, they’re frustrated that they’re blowing a great opportunity to turn up the pressure on Celtic and Brendan Rodgers. If results go as expected on Saturday then Rangers will be sitting in the bottom half. A defeat would be disastrous for the Ibrox men.
Rangers prefer to play 4-3-3
Though Gerrard isn’t afraid to alter his starting formation to combat the opposition - sometimes to his side’s detriment, as evidenced by the performances against Motherwell and Livingston - he’s preferred a 4-3-3 system for the most part. Depending on where the wingers, likely to be Daniel Candeias and Ryan Kent, position themselves in support of striker Alfredo Morelos will tell us a lot about how much respect Rangers are paying to their Edinburgh opponents. In domestic football at Ibrox these attackers have tended to play quite centrally, closer to Morelos. However, if Gerrard is concerned about the threat of Hearts’ full-backs then he’ll have them drop into traditional wide-men areas, where it’s easier to track runs forward.
There could be a number of changes
Rangers’ patchy form to begin the league season can perhaps be attributed to their continued involvement in the Europa League and Betfred Cup. Sunday’s match will already be their 20th game of the campaign thus far. Gerrard has been encouraged into rotating his squad on occasion and, after Sunday’s defeat at Livingston, supporters wondered whether he would prioritise the league fixture over the Rapid clash in order to give his side the best chance at a “must-win” victory. Resisting such temptation, the Rangers boss went with his strongest XI.
With 14 days off following Hearts’ visit thanks to the international break, he may stick with roughly the same starting XI and hope fatigue isn’t a factor. Although, don’t be too surprised if the likes of Borna Barisic and Kyle Lafferty come back into the starting XI.
How the new boys are getting on
Similar to Hearts, there was significant squad upheaval this past summer and, again like Hearts, it seems to have improved the quality of the first-team.
At the back Rangers are a very different proposition. Allan McGregor has been in terrific form in goals. He stands behind the imperious Connor Goldson, who will likely be partnered by Nottingham Forest loanee Joe Worrall. The latter only recently came into the team at the expense of fellow new boy Nikola Katic, who had built a strong partnership with Goldson. Worrall struggled against Livingston but put that behind him with a terrific showing against Rapid. With James Tavernier a mainstay at right-back, it’s been up to Joe Flanagan and Barisic to battle it out for the left-back spot. Flanagan is viewed as the defensive option of the two, with Barisic looking to get forward and make use of his strong crossing ability.
In midfield, Lassana Coulibaly is the type of combative, powerful presence Rangers have lacked in the position for some years. And while Scott Arfield and Ovie Ejaria have been a little inconsistent to this point, both are capable of controlling the game from the centre of the park.
Up front, Ryan Kent provides skill and quickness from the left wing, while Kyle Lafferty has hit the ground running since his move from Hearts. With Eros Grezda and Gareth McAuley still waiting for their chance, only Umar Sadiq appears to be the only dud signing at this moment in time. The Roma striker came with a great pedigree but so far Gerrard has not been impressed, saying the player must improve “everything” before he gets a run in the first-team.
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