Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Weekend Ahead

Rushed this week as I prepare to host a dinner party. Middle class excess and all that. Still I hold on to the fact that I'll always be more Morrison's Value than Bullingdon Bertie. Such small moral victories keep us on the side of the righteous.

On football matters I have been a bit detached this week. That two draws on the road is some kind of European triumph says all that needs to be said about this season.

And so to our predictions for the weekend ahead:

Hearts v Hibs (ESPN, 12.30)

Flaming Nora. Many more derbies and I'll just get the glazier to move in such is the frequency with which I am forced to cast my form book out the window. Hibs arrive as favourites and in second place. The hosts are short of form, short of luck and short of goals. A dead cert away win then? Well, these games have a habit of throwing up surprises. They also have a habit of being dour and tense, enlivened more by red cards than goals. Still I'm backing Hibs to add to the Tynecastle malaise.

Aberdeen v St Johnstone

A topsy-turvy start for both teams. Aberdeen are a team in transition with finances causing a major hangover. St Johnstone seem to have brought everything but consistency to the SPL party. Fancy an away win though.

Hamilton v Motherwell

Another derby clash. Hamilton will be buoyant after last week while manager of the month Jim Gannon continues to get impressive results with a team he does not seem entirely happy with. Could be close but I back Motherwell to edge it.

Kilmarnock v Dundee United

After last week's defeat at Celtic Kilmarnock will be glad of home comforts and main man Kevin Kyle will be asked to deliver the goods again. I expect them to be outdone by a United team that has more strength and will not be overawed by a physical battle. Away win.

Rangers v St Mirren

Rangers will look to clear the memories of that last minute goal on Wednesday with a barnstorming home display. St Mirren's good run was brought to a shuddering halt by Hamilton last week. Can't see past the home win.

Falkirk v Celtic (12.45, Sunday)

Away win. Simple as.

How I Stand: 21 out of 53 after an almost unheard 4 out of 5 last week.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Champions League chumps?

4-1, 4-1. Not only Walter Smith’s most likely formation for tonight but also the defeats Rangers have suffered in their last two European games. The perceived wisdom is that it’s a formation that works better away from home. As it’s the formation that will be in use against Unirea Urziceni you’ve really got to hope that’s the case.

Do Rangers go into tonight’s game in crisis? Domestically they’re still in touch but in Europe they look to be completely out of their depth, unable to compete against even the most limited of continental opposition. And even in the SPL they don’t look comfortable. Winning, they say, is a habit and this Rangers teams looks to have lost it.

Apologists will say that the off field problems at the club are at the root of this malaise. But these are still well paid players, some of whom were brought it in at some expense. They should be able to go out and perform without worrying unduly about arguments between accountants. The obvious conclusion is that these players simply don’t care enough about the club to knuckle down and fight through the adversity. That’s fairly stunning indictment of the calibre of player that Rangers have attracted in the past few years.

But you’re only as bad as your last mistake and the same players can make amends in Romania this evening. It won’t be easy and it will need to be done without some key players including Madjid Bougherra and Pedro Mendes.

Kenny Miller, the man most likely to act as Rangers’ first line of defence, summed up the size of the task ahead with rather more aplomb than he’s been controlling the ball and dispatching chances of late:
It probably would be all over if we get beaten here, we know what's at stake. No matter what the form is going into this game, we've got to go and get the three points. We'll have to wipe it from the memory. It's a new game. We've had a couple of games since then. We seem to have upped our performance. We know we can win but we need to remember what they did to us in the first game and hopefully turn it around.
There is a feeling at Rangers that the result against Unirea the last time out was a freak. Maybe it was but the Romanians did enough to show that they have to be taken seriously. More than that they have hungry players, players who are somewhat unbelievably living a Champion’s League dream and are desperate to progress.

Maybe, more than any technical deficiency, that will be the vital difference tonight as it was a fortnight ago.

Still we shouldn’t kid ourselves that Dan Petrescu’s team are world beaters or that Walter Smith has somehow been rendered incapable of getting a performance from his team. The second half performance and creditable draw against Stuttgart proved that Smith can still rally this bunch of players.

Rangers recent success away from home has, however, been built on a fairly limited, negative platform. With moneymen and supporters screaming for success tonight Smith faces a dilemma. Play the attacking game that others will demand but which he thinks is above the capabilities of the players at his disposal but might wrong foot the opposition.

Or go for the tried and tested method, hope to nick a goal and then hold on. There are no easy answers. But if he gets it wrong then we’ll probably have more of an idea about Smith’s future and short term prospects of this Rangers side than we have over the course of an uncertain couple of weeks.

Prediction: Tricky. Are the Romanians really a side that should beat you 4-1 at home? No, but after they’ve handed out that beating it makes your chances of beating them at home much trickier. In truth an ignominious end to this European campaign is what Rangers deserve after their last two matches. I expect them to lose by the odd goal tonight but they’re in with a shout of snatching a draw to keep their faint hopes alive.