Opportunity knocks for Rangers this week. And that is a testament to the doors Steven Gerrard has been able to nudge open for the Ibrox club. When the Englishman was appointed, it did not seem possible that, five months into his tenure, he could enter a week wherein two wins would see his club with one foot in the last 32 of the Europa League and top of the Premiership.
That is what is on offer to Gerrard’s men if they are able to manufacture a victory at home to Villarreal on Thursday and prevail over an ailing Hearts at Tynecastle on Sunday. Yet, despite this best possible outcome, right now it is still difficult to determine exactly what this Rangers team are made of.
Mercurial hardly begins to describe the manner in which performance levels oscillate – as was demonstrated in their win over an obdurate Livingston on Saturday.
The success was one that highlighted the over-reliance on Alfredo Morelos, required to stem the tide that was flowing towards the home side before his introduction for the last half hour. It certainly did that, with the Colombian netting his side’s clinching second – and his 16th of the season – before setting up Scott Arfield for a closing seconds third.
The 3-0 scoreline was deemed flattering by Livingston goalkeeper Liam Kelly, who nevertheless relished the “big” moment of playing a senior game at Ibrox having failed to do so in his previous life coming through the ranks at Rangers. He didn’t look too clever for Daniel Candeias’ headed opener from a Glenn Middleton corner 20 minutes in, but his team played intelligently, and, yes, robustly, to expose the limitations of Rangers.
Kyle Lafferty looked blunt as a replacement for Morelos, rested because the club face four games in 12 days, and if Rangers are to sustain a league challenge, the need for a bustling forward to share the goalscoring burden that Morelos is shouldering appears obvious, to Gerrard as much as anyone, with the Ibrox side consistently linked with a loan move for Liverpool forward Dominic Solanke. The 21-year-old fits the bill according to a current Anfield loanee gaining game time at Rangers in midfielder Ovie Ejaria. The Ibrox club are unlikely to fit the bill for Solanke, or Liverpool in return, with both footballing and financial considerations appearing to count out any such switch.
“Dom is a very good player, I’ve known him for a very long time. He’s another goalscorer, he scores a lot of goals so if he was to come to Rangers in January it would be a very good addition to the squad,” said Ejaria when Solanke’s name was floated. “Rangers are a very good club and I’ve enjoyed my time here so far and if I was to speak to him about it I would only have good things to say about Rangers. It would also increase the strength in depth of the squad and he would be a very good addition – and don’t forget Kyle Lafferty, who’s another top striker. That would be really good.”
Yet, Ejaria believes that the current pool available to Gerrard can threaten Celtic’s title hegemony. It is Brendan Rodgers’ side’s participation in Sunday’s Betfred Cup final that offers Rangers the chance to move one point above them having played a game more, but Ejaria refuses to consider that halting Celtic’s quest for an eighth straight championship might be too much to ask of a team still under reconstruction by a first-time manager.
“If we win next week it would be a big confidence boost for us but we’re just taking each game as it comes. Could we stay there? Yes, definitely, but we have to take each game and use the confidence from each match,” he said. “There are a lot of top players here and everyone is focused and that’s our goal.
“It’s quite close at the top. We know Celtic are a very good side and we’re a very good side as well so we’re confident we can do really well. I’m not too sure how they’d see it [if we went top] but we see it as a big opportunity and everyone is really focused and our main goal is to try and win the league. The confidence is very high and we’ve just had two positive results. We have a lot of different types of players and the injury to Ryan Kent has allowed guys such as Glenn Middleton to come in so there’s a lot of strength in depth.”