Thursday, February 17, 2011

Rangers v Sporting Lisbon

A quiet few days for Rangers kicks off with a Govan welcome to Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League.

The teams last met in 2008 when Rangers were on their way to the final of the UEFA Cup. What Walter Smith would give for that to be an omen of good times ahead.

In his tactical preview for Scottish Football Forums, Andrew Gibney of Gibfootballshow looks at Walter Smith's options:

Much of the pre-match build is based over what system Walter Smith will play in the first leg. Does he stick with the tried and tested 5-4-1 or with some new players at his disposal he could go for a more aggressive 4-5-1. Lee McCulloch’s injury will have been a massive blow to any of Walter’s plans and it gives him a few key decisions to make before kick-off.

One of those formations would seem to be the most obvious decision for Smith. But rumours from Graham Spiers on Twitter suggest that Rangers might be going with two up front for tonight's game - or at the very least with another forward instructed to support Lafferty up front.

We've been focusing a lot recently on Rangers' loss of momentum in the SPL as Celtic have hit top spot. But what would Sporting, some 23 points being league leaders Porto, give to be within a couple of games hand from the top of the table?

So tonight perhaps offers a welcome distraction for the Portuguese. But is it an unwelcome interruption to Rangers' preparations for Sunday's Old Firm clash?

Smith says that is absolutely not the case. Much depends on the result. If Rangers perform well and get a decent result while avoiding injuries they are buoyed for the weekend. If they get beaten and the scrapes and bruises mount up then the hangover might last until Sunday.

Certainly Rangers will need to be fully focused in a clash which seems winnable. On current form neither of these sides are in the top ranks of the European aristocracy and it could be quite a tight affair. But there is no reason for Rangers to be overawed by the presence of the opposition.

And that might just make up Smith's mind when he weighs the benefits and disadvantages of showing slightly more adventure than he has on previous European nights.

The right attitude and the right start will get the crowd going and convince the players of their ability to win this game. A lot of that can come from the manager's choice of formation and tactics.

For Smith, the arch pragmatist, an emphasis on attack would also allow him to move the focus from the gap in Rangers' midfield caused by the absence of Lee McCulloch that Andrew mentions.

Smith might have cause to curse that absence before the season is out but a shift away from the no risks approach would be a way of papering over the cracks in the short term.

The European nights are drawing in for Smith. Why not let his troops off the leash for once?

It could be an interesting night at Ibrox. I'll miss it, happily ensconced in the local picture house watching The King's Speech instead.

And Rangers can't afford a stuttering, stammering performance tonight (that gag was so blindingly obvious I'm almost ashamed) because right now they look a side at the end of their period of pre-eminence.

They can't allow that feeling to be reinforced by a poor display against a struggling Sporting side before Sunday's Old Firm clash.

Scottish Football Blog prediction: A rare European win for Rangers in a close encounter.

> Nikica Jelavic ineligible, Kenny Miller gone, Kyle Lafferty not long recovered from illness. Could El Hadji Diouf play a big, big part for Rangers tonight. On STV's football site Zonal Marking suggests that seeing Diouf in the lone striker's role "wouldn't be a surprise."

> "A rare European win?" Rangers have won only one of their last 17 European games from open play, reports Roddy Forsyth.

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