Rangers focus will shift to League business come Sunday when we return to Ibrox just 3 days on, fresh from our fantastic victory over Rapid Vienna when the top of the table Hearts visit the fortress that Ibrox stadium is once again becoming. This is about as close to a must-win match at this stage of the season as you can get in my opinion following our away day blues.
Thursday night down Ibrox way was absolutely magnificent, from the players, fans and management what a night, and what a result. Rapid are a decent side and an extremely physical one at that, just how we managed to handle them with such ease is something to behold. 3-1 wins in Europe are not easy to come by, just ask that mob across the city. Coming from a goal behind, one that was clearly offside at that shows the resolve and desire within this group of players.
Getting to the party of the Europa League group stages was seen, and quite rightly so as some achievement, now whisper it quietly we may even see our progress from a very strong and competitive group. Well done everyone, I do not know about you, but after we scored the third goal from the highly impressive Morelos I took just a minute to look around, see the passion and happiness in peoples faces after years of hurt, false dawns and people trying to kick us down. We would never be silenced or just go away into the night without a fight. Now, teams in Europe will be starting to sit up and take notice again, Ibrox and Rangers are back where we belong. Didn't she just look spectacular and breathtaking under the lights.
Now on to Sunday and Hearts, who head to Govan with six wins from seven without defeat to their name so far in the Scottish Premier League, no better time to hand out the first loss then.
Here are my 5 storylines to follow vs Hearts.
1 - A SETTLED SIDE?
How many if any changes will Steven Gerrard make come Sunday, after our exploits on Thursday night. If there has been one overriding criticism of Stevie Gs reign so far it has been his constant chopping and changing of both personal and systems at times, now I think that is partly due to the gaffer still trying to work out what certain players are made of, do they have what it takes to play here week in week out.
As sure as death and taxes teams will always raise their games when facing us, it's us and our players who must deal with that. This is not an overnight thing turning us around. I ask fans that we have faith and most importantly patience, this season will have its highs and lows, lead changes and share of good and bad days, please keep in mind just exactly where we were a few short months ago, it takes a while to change the mentality of any organisation, something I've no doubt or question the management team are trying to install. This was as weak and pathetic a Rangers side as I've witnessed at the end of last season, players happy to pick up a wage and show nothing of the desire, hunger or mental strength required to wear the famous light blue, we were bullied and had our lunch money taken from us far too often. Just look at our results in Europe as proof that progress is being made. Last year we couldn't win away at Patrick.
My gut feeling is that we will see Katic and possibly Barisic come back into the side if we win then great but id just like to see a settled back four, allowing them to form an understanding constant change can create issues. Worrall was everything he can be vs Rapid, his display was a fuller and more complete one than even we saw in the second half against Villarreal if he is Stevie Gs preferred choice to play with Goldson then give them a run of games to form a partnership. Candeias is other that may very well make way, due in large part to the shift and energy he showed throughout the match, we may also want to set up a touch more attacking not asking our wingers to double back in cover quite so much. What about that back heel pass.
I fully appreciate the manager has had one transfer window, that's all to completely reshape the side, it will take time. However, I would like to see a more settled side, the best sides can pick themselves and squad rotation can have as many downsides as it does positives, players in good form should be rewarded with keeping the jersey. This is not like the situation we experienced earlier in the year when returning from Russia this is two home games, the players slept in their own beds, no long flight back, so I don't want to hear any excuses this time. The fitness work the squad has endured has been well documented, this now is our chance to show it, the players will get a mid-season break after all, following the Old Firm clash at Ibrox on December 29th. What's the point in doing all that fitness work if you can't play two games in a row?.
The players should enjoy playing, after all, they pay you to train, playing especially at Ibrox is a huge bonus.
"The coach must not only be dedicated to football, but he must be tough mentally" Bear Bryant
We have a manager who is both.
2 - NAISMITH
I think most Rangers fans feel the same way about him, so that is not something I wish to go over and over. The reception he will receive is one he fully deserves for his conduct when leaving us, not so much the fact he did, just the manner he chose to do it. Badly advised or not. I'm sure the player himself deeply regrets it now, something that perhaps cost him a return move to us last season, along with the fact I don't think his strong personally sat well with our caretaker manager at the time.
Last year many onlookers wondered what kind of player Naismith still was following on from a series of injuries, coupled with a lack of first-team action. This season, however, Naismith has displayed the kind of form that has seen him earn a recall to the national side. His form has seen a drastic upturn, you only have to look at the display he put in vs our Old Firm rivals as evidence to show what he is indeed capable of.
We are all aware of what type of player he is, one who won't give the defenders a minute's peace, pressing the fullbacks and picking up loose balls. A very capable finisher especially at this level, Naismith quite often shoots early and instinctively. What is underestimated and sometimes gets overlooked is his ability in the air, he is a very accomplished header of the ball for a player of his height, with a great leap. We must be cautious of the way he wins vital free kicks in dangerous areas also, don't dive in or commit too early, stand tall and strong would be my message to the defenders.
He and his strike partner ex-Rangers youth, Aberdeen and most notably St Johnstone player Steven Maclean are arguably the best strike force outside the Old Firm.
Keep the two quiet will give us a great chance of all three points.
After all, he is a rat Judas git.
3 -K LAFF
Big Kyle Lafferty is another player who will face off against his former club, only this player is one of us. No doubt he will be eager to show Hearts players, management and supporters just what they are missing while getting our title challenge back on track.
Lafferty left Hearts on good terms, not going on strike or downing tools like so many modern footballers do these days. Even leaving a video message for the fans, something I hope the Hearts support respect and remember come Sunday, he also fetched them a good old fee, all things considered for the Gorgie club. A club with a cash cow and all that.
Lafferty most likely will find himself on the bench, that is no reason he can't have an impact and a hugely positive one at that. Asking Morelos to play two full 90 minutes with all the running and pressing we ask from the wee man could be a tough ask, so having a player you can trust as well as fresh and hungry as Lafferty is great. The Hearts backline will not look forward to the big man entering the field when they are tired after all, fatigue makes cowards of us all.
4 - BIG PLAYERS SHOW UP
We have big players on big wages at our club, players who have been rewarded with new and improved deals. Now is the chance to show they are worth it. At Ibrox, we have been magnificent so far, a trend I see continuing on Sunday, but we need our big players to once again show up.
In the games we have struggled in this season, Parkhead, Motherwell and last Sunday at Livingston it has been notable that our big players have failed to show up or had an off day. We can't have that, too many passengers, and we will find ourselves in situations that are needless, we are a better team than Hearts, something I think the season in full will show, like Livi Hearts, will be organised and confident. So what?. Kick their ass, then kick it some more. Outplay, out fight and out skill them, win your one on one battles and if you're having a bad game make damn sure the guy opposite you has an equally bad match.
El Bufalo and Tav were standouts on Thursday along with many others, so much so Rapid even brought on a sub just to sit on Tav, as for Morelos I had previously stated he needed a performance in a big game, well we got it. Playing to the level he was capable of, the frustrating part is it comes just a few days after the showing at Livingston, we must eradicate the inconsistency. His all-around game on Thursday was at its optimum best, defenders were scared of his power and ability to run at them, with the penalty he won as a fine example of the fear he installed.
Big players win big games. Sunday is another big game.
5 - FINAL BALL
If I had to have one slight moan (I know) over Thursday's near flawless showing it would be our final ball at times. At several stages in the match, we found ourselves in great positions time after time, only to not clear the first man or lack that wee bit of composure when it was needed most. It was the same from set plays we wasted chances at free kicks and corners to really ask questions of the Rapid defence, Hearts will be another tall and physical side so anytime we get in an advanced position wide, or a set play we need to do better.
Thursday's game could have been well out of reach before it was if our final ball had been of better quality, that's how impressive we were, it was an utterly dominant display, McGregor never had a save of note to make, not bad at all for a European tie.
It like the consistency is something that will come in time I'm sure of, it is pleasing to see us get in so many positive positions, we have a young squad and the victory will only have enhanced the confidence throughout the club.
PREDICTION - Rangers 4 - 1 Hearts