Before Rangers’ first leg against Maribor there was a mixture of feelings. It was fun while it lasted. Let’s see where we really are. That sort of thing. For me, I thought it could mark the end of the banter years but only if Rangers came through the two legs. There is a nice symmetry about it all, Rangers’ defeat to Maribor in 2011/12 Champions League qualification marked the beginning of the end. The end of success across European and domestic fronts. For the time being anyway. The fact that our not too distant neighbours are having an identity crisis only makes tonight’s game even more important.
Momentum is a huge thing in sport. It can be during a game, over a period of weeks or even domination of a particular fixture. Celtic have had it all their own way in every facet domestically. The league, trophies, Old Firm games, the list is endless. But they’ve had a wobble. The fans aren’t happy. Brendan Rodgers isn’t happy. It’s all someone else’s fault. For once (most of) the press is seeing through it. How can you claim poverty but spend £9 million on one player? The total cost of Rangers’ squad overhaul incidentally.
To make matters worse for them, we are getting better. We aren’t there yet. But we are getting there. Unbeaten in seven games, including two where we’ve played the majority with just ten men. We’ve not been behind all season. The defence looks immeasurably more solid and we have a midfield that can dominate a game both physically and technically. It’s also an energetic, young, fresh-looking team supported with hardened, physical campaigners. Leadership throughout the team and Alfredo Morelos pulling up trees on his own up front. We now have a team we can be proud of.
But, and it is a big but. Momentum can take months to build and just ninety minutes to come crashing to a halt. So far in his short managerial career, Steven Gerrard has faced different pressures in every game. Avoid embarrassment. Playing with ten men domestically (twice). Seeing off an excellent Croatian team that, no doubt, would have battered us a matter of months ago. Now he has to finish what was so competently started at Ibrox. Victory over an experienced Champions League team away from home. A true marker of where we are.
I’d expect Gerrard to go for the most physical and experienced team he has. More work rate, maybe a little less flair. More strength and nous against youthful exuberance. He is a pragmatist but he also knows where Maribor are weakest. To sit in and try to counter would play into their hands. To press them high up and pressure them into long balls plays into ours. Whichever way he goes, I’m sure it’ll end up being down to the players to get us over the line. It feels like we are walking through the wardrobe into Narnia. I hope the door gets battered down rather than a tentative peak before dipping our toes into the snow.
With Gerrard at the helm, I expect nothing less than the passion, determination, and effort required to see us through to the next round. All the momentum of an express train, all aboard!!