Steven Gerrard was looking to secure qualification for the Europa League group stages for a fourth season in a row, with Alashkert of Armenia standing between us and reaching this stage once again. There are, however, many differences this year as opposed to last. There is now a lack of jeopardy for clubs at this stage as failure to win this tie would simply mean qualifying for the group stage of the newly formed Conference League, although the Europa League is still far ore prestigious. But the key difference is the mood amongst the support surrounding our team at the moment. When we have reached this stage there is an air of optimism as we have shown ourselves to be playing really good football, a lot of players looking on form and there would be a sense of achievement around us advancing to the group stages. But only a few players are currently standing out, and others are noticeable for the wrong reasons, and so many of us had dreams of a more glamorous group stage that we now have an expectation of qualifying, and that our opponents would merely be swept aside in order for us to advance. In fact, that was the absolute expectation for the match on Thursday, we need only turn up and finish the tie before the return leg in Armenia. The night would turn out to be a different one than what was expected.
It was a really poor first half, there is no getting away from that. The players were playing as though they could just try and save their energy whilst playing, and that Alashkert would not in any way cause us any sort of hassle in doing so. Passes were going astray, attacking moves would stop before they had begun, and there was so little going on middle to front for us that it really did become a boring affair. To have then gone down to 10 men just before half time, in what was an echo from the previous weeks’ European tie, was all the more baffling. It was the correct decision from the referee, and all focus has been on the player in question ever since. This left us in a stupid position in the second half, having to go all out with a man less to find a breakthrough. Added energy from the bench helped with this, with other players really stepping up, it meant we dominated the half and eventually found the breakthrough after a perfectly weighted ball from the right was latched onto by our striker who smacked the ball in underneath the goalkeeper. We continued to hunt for a second goal but that was not to come, meaning that despite the victory, fans were left frustrated by the performance and we still seem to have more questions than answers regarding our start to this campaign. Ultimately, we should be able to do the long journey next week and advance, which is what matters, but we need to see more players turning up to the party now.
Here is how you rated our players from our first leg victory in the Europa League Play Off qualifier.
Allan McGregor – 6.0 (7)
The stand out moments from his night was how he quite beautifully managed the game once we were ahead. Those simple and subtle time wasting techniques that, on an otherwise mostly frustrating evening, meant you couldn’t help but grin. The fact it came to that on what should have been an easy enough tie is in itself worrying, but I’m not sure there is much you can point to for McGregor in a negative context.
James Tavernier – 5.8 (7)
Clearly a lot of people felt that Tavernier was again very poor compared to what he should be, what we know he can be, but it’s important to remember within your assessment of him that he provides the assist, and it was no fluke ball either. If you look back on it, he sees the space in front of Morelos and the weight of the ball was perfect to be run on to. Yes, a lot of other passes and crosses can be far better from him, so in no way are we at the point where we can say “he’s back” yet.
Connor Goldson – 6.0 (6)
Alashkert did not have a huge amount of goalmouth opportunities so only on a few occasions was the defence tested. That said, there is still something missing about Goldson. There isn’t the commanding aura about him. The confidence, the concentration, it still feels far from when he was at his absolute best last season. And his use of the ball is also less consistent. It’s not like he was terrible, he’s just not where we know he can be yet.
Filip Helander – 6.3 (7)
There really is no reason not to play Filip Helander. I get the idea of making sure other players get a look in now and again, but if Fil is fit, he plays, because there is no better out and out defender at our club than the Swede. Just a couple of things that he would do, well timed challenges, his movement to intercept, they just felt so natural to him but at this level they are always so important. I think it is crucial that he be given a solid run of games now.
Calvin Bassey – 7.3 (7)
I think his inclusion in the starting line up is a massive nod from the manager about what he has seen from Calvin so far, and Bassey absolutely deserves that. I feel he rewarded the gaffer with another full hearted performance which for some people will now secure his place in the starting line up for the time being. He crossed the ball a lot in this game, many just a bit off where it needed to be, and it felt a bit like he was playing with his new toy that he got at points with that, but I love the commitment he showed to both that and the rest of his game. If he was to drop out of the team at any point for the foreseeable, it will not be about what he is doing. He seems to have turned a real corner.
John Lundstram – 1.6 (3)
Inexcusable. On a yellow card, right where the referee is, to commit another bookable offence and put your team in more bother is something that players at this club rarely get away with. But for someone who really has not turned up in the way anyone would have expected so far, it’s a really tough one to come back from. He has to show a lot of character to prove his worth now. The talent is clearly there (I wont have arguments against that, we’ve seen enough flashes and he has enough experience to show why he earns what he does) so it really is a mentality thing now. If he can completely redeem himself, it will lead to a good Rangers career. A lot of doubts already over whether that is even possible though.
Steven Davis – 6.3 (6)
One of the arguments people have regarding Lundstram is his inability to play alongside Davis, and as a result the performance of Davis will suffer. When the team seems likely to fall into the trap of laziness and lethargy, we always look to Davis to bring that spark and tempo to get us back to where we expect our team to be playing. We didn’t get this in the first half which is disappointing, and the second half it wasn’t possible as he needed to do a different job once down to 10.
Joe Aribo – 6.1 (6)
I still think that there are some promising flashes of chemistry between Aribo and Bassey down the left hand side, but you can easily look to Joe as another who could help the team a lot more in that first half. He also had a tough time handling their right back which just added to the annoyance of many who felt this game would be a walkover. It is unlikely we would see both him and Juninho Bacuna in the same midfield, so if he wants to keep that position, then he will need to up his game.
Ianis Hagi – 7.6 (8) – Man of the Match
We can spend such a long time talking about his quality, but one of the reasons he is being lauded as one of the best in our team right now is his tenacity, something that many other players could do well to emulate. He looked angry and wanted to take out his frustrations by getting something going, whether it be winning the ball back or forcing the Alashkert defence into fouling him. When we ask for players to step up and take ownership of a situation, this second half display from Hagi is exactly what we are talking about. We need him in the team as often as possible. This could be a big year for him.
Alfredo Morelos – 6.9 (8)
Something about Europe that just gets a tune out of Alfie. His playing style is always ideal for European nights, but even with that the first half was a quiet one for him due to lack of service. This is where frustrations of so many other players are coming in, because if you can get the ball to Morelos in a good area, he is more likely to make good use of it than not. The goal being a prime example. A perfect lobbed through ball for Morelos to run onto (no definitive answer on whether it was offside, likely their right back plays him on, no flag from the ref, if it still upsets you then you’re more than welcome to cry more) and without needing to take a touch he slams the ball underneath the goalkeeper and into the net. It’s a goal that means we just need to avoid defeat next Thursday, a big goal in that respect. Oh, and I get the feeling he will be staying put, which would be rather lovely.
Ryan Kent – 3.9 (5)
This can happen with Ryan Kent where he has a very dry spell, and the frustrating thing has been that no one seems capable of taking his place in the team. It seems like a long time since he went past a couple of defenders and got into the box to either shoot or cut back, that’s what we expect from him but we got none of it, instead he just seemed to get nothing right. His half time sub was the sensible move, and I guess we just have to wait until he finds that mojo again, which could well happen in our next home game given the opponents.
Scott Wright – 6.9 (7)
Wright’s replacing of Kent was a good move both ways, as you immediately saw the intent from him when he was on. He seems to be the go to guy for when we need a boost in the side, with his speed and commitment, and the only thing that should be keeping him out of the side right now is any injury issues. The job he was asked to do is not an easy one in those circumstances, to be the one link between midfield and attack, and I thought he did a good job with it.
Scott Arfield – 4.1 (5)
An extra bit of legs in the midfield which didn’t lead to anything more from the team. Is the expectation of him to be an attacking threat when he comes on? What do others see his role as now? I’m getting more and more confused trying to think of the answer to that one.
Cedric Itten – 4.4 (5)
Added height to try and grab a second goal which never came to be. He would have likely started in Armenia had the tie been near enough sorted so he will no doubt be frustrated by both the result and his lack of game time. The simple answer to that though is he needs to show more to earn a start.
Stephen Kelly – 5.0 (5)
Another run out which is encouraging as we want to see more of Kelly. That said, you cannot expect him to do a huge amount when he has so little time in a game that had, by that stage, become so stodgy.