Rangers prepare for storm: Philippe Clement's Highland fling, Abdallah Sima conundrum, latest on contract talks with trio

Belgian boss enjoyed short Scottish break ahead of hectic schedule – starting with tricky trip to Pittodrie

Whereas many company employees might already be contemplating easing into Christmas, Philippe Clement is gearing up for the busiest, possibly defining period of the season. The Rangers manager himself noted that his side face 12 games in 37 days, four in the next 11.

A cup final against Sunday’s Premiership opposition, Aberdeen, is included in the run. Clement can’t wait to get going again after the fortnight international ‘break’, during which he took the opportunity to head north with his wife, Isabelle. “We drove through the Highlands,” he said. “It was really beautiful to see, although I was on the phone a couple of times! That’s part of this job. But she was really happy to do that and so was I.”

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Any calm before the guaranteed storm of an appointment at Pittodrie – Rangers’ first since last season – must be savoured. This clash might be a dress rehearsal for Hampden Park on the 17 December but it will be no less volatile for that. In such circumstances, perhaps Rangers are better off without someone as combustible as Alfredo Morelos. Although he does want fire in the bellies, if not in the stands, Clement stressed the need for clear heads. Getting caught up in the passion of this particular fixture risks helping no one except the opposition.

Rangers manager Philippe Clement spent some time during the international break visiting the Highlands.Rangers manager Philippe Clement spent some time during the international break visiting the Highlands.
Rangers manager Philippe Clement spent some time during the international break visiting the Highlands.

“That would be stupid so it’s what we try to avoid,” said Clement. “For the moment I don’t have this fear. We’ve all seen it in the past with several teams but I don’t like it when I see it in my team. That’s why I try to avoid it, by explaining these things. They should be ready to play our game, not be busy with what’s going on around the pitch or discussions with referees or opponents. I want there to be a pure focus on us.”

Having played all his career in Belgium and England, the intricacies of Aberdeen v Rangers antagonism might have passed him by. But the fact Spurs player James Maddison recently chose his free-kick winner against Rangers while on loan at Aberdeen seven years ago as the greatest goal of his career to date must alert anyone to the fixture's special ingredients The Spurs star, who has scored 46 top-flight goals in England, even mentioned the rivalry between the teams in the interview for his club’s in-house TV channel.

Clement might have missed this clip circulating on social media given he was dealing with such practical issues as Abdallah Sima’s wife having given birth on Thursday – and how this happy news might affect the striker’s involvement this weekend. All is well, reported Clement: “He’s back in training and OK for Aberdeen.” Sima's longer-term prospects are less clear given he could be called up by Senegal for the Africa Cup of Nations finals in January. “I don’t want to think about the problems that could come,” said Clement.

Something he knows is coming down the line is players entering the last six months of their contracts. Borna Barisic, Ryan Jack and John Lundstram are all free to talk to other clubs in just five weeks. Clement has still to reach a conclusion on whether to offer new deals. “We’re busy talking in the club about January, about next season,” said the manager. “It’s the period to do that, we’re busy around recruitment for next season. Of course! It’s part of the job. I see more things about the players, I get to know them more and more, so it will be a better decision made.”

Aberdeen v Rangers on Sunday will be a dress rehearsal for the Viaplay Cup final.Aberdeen v Rangers on Sunday will be a dress rehearsal for the Viaplay Cup final.
Aberdeen v Rangers on Sunday will be a dress rehearsal for the Viaplay Cup final.

Jack has been ruled out of this weekend’s trip to his hometown due to injury so he will avoid his usual spiky reception on a weekend where local passions have been further stoked by celebrations marking 40 years since the first leg of Aberdeen’s Super Cup win over Hamburg. They lifted the trophy – they remain the only Scottish club to win two European titles – with a 2-0 victory at Pittodrie four weeks after the first clash finished goalless.

Gordon Strachan, Clement’s old manager at Coventry City, was one of the key men and was at Friday night’s celebratory dinner. Coventry headed north to Pittodrie to play Ebbe Skovdahl's side in a friendly in July 1999 but Clement had left the club a few days earlier to sign for Club Brugge. He played slightly further north – for Coventry against Ross County, in Robbie Willamson’s testimonial in October 1998 – but otherwise a drive around the Highlands and an incident-packed, if comfortable, victory against Dundee at Dens Park last month is the limit of Clement's northern exposure.

Has he been briefed about what lies in store in Aberdeen? “Nobody has told me much,” he said. “I read newspapers sometimes and people tell me what’s in them. In the building, one of my first messages towards the team was that every game was important and we need to have respect for every opponent. I want to see a team that plays the same against Real Madrid and Ross County. I see the team understands it’s important to be like that and they did it in a good way over the last couple of weeks. They’re not busy with the noise around, they’re busy with what they do on pitch.”

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The last two Rangers managers to lose their first trip to Pittodrie were Mark Warburton and Walter Smith in his second spell, although it was hardly a maiden visit to the stadium in the latter's case. Nobody needed to tell the legendary Smith about the rivalry involved. Now 49, Clement has experienced plenty of needle matches elsewhere. “When I played as a young guy I was at Beerschot and there were two clubs in Antwerp, them and Antwerp,” he said. “There’s a big rivalry there – you can compare it with Celtic and Rangers because it’s two teams in the same city. Then in Bruges we had two teams in the same stadium, which was also special, so I’ve seen a few things like that.”

Let’s see what he makes of high noon at Pittodrie as Rangers' unbeaten record under their new manager faces its greatest domestic test to date.