How Rangers' weekend win over Real Madrid will influence the start of their SPFL Premiership title defence
Steven Gerrard has given his team two days of recovery before the competitive kick-off and their domestic title defence against Livingston.
Then it will be back to reality after two weekend games in 24 hours gave Rangers fans food for thought, but victory over Real Madrid has whet the appetite for the new season.
Yes, the Spaniards were missing the absolute elite of world football that Carlo Ancelotti’s usual squad boasts, but they were still handy enough with a £45million striker, 180-plus international caps between them and a sprinkling of Champions League winners on and off the pitch.
First impressions from the weekend at Ibrox is confidence is high – or should that be still high? After lifting the league title last May and the unbeaten league campaign Rangers’ positivity hasn’t had cause to wane over the summer and a win over Los Blancos on the eve of the new season kick-off will only add more.
Ryan Kent’s hip-shaking run beyond three of the iconic all-white kits caught the eye of the Madridistas and Rangers had John Lundstram flicking the ball beyond a 56-time capped Brazilian and three-times Champions League winner, then winning the ensuing foot-race with Marcelo.
Even before the superstars entered Edmiston Drive and their morale-boosting scalp, Rangers’ confidence was in full flow against Brighton on Saturday.
Nathan Patterson was cheekily chipping the ball over opponents’ heads and in Stephen Kelly, Rangers had a 21-year-old conducting the pace and tempo against English Premier League opposition. Even Glen Kamara – against one of the many clubs he’s been linked with – was performing roulette-turns through the midfield.
Kamara featured more against Brighton than Madrid, perhaps as result of his delayed return to training after Euro 2020 but looks to have lost none of last season's composure – in fact, he’s gained more over recent months. Adding that pirouette flair to his ball retention and then playing a key role in Rangers’ Real Madrid equaliser showed his mettle once again after an emotionally-draining season and physically-demanding summer, that impressed on both counts.
Rangers will do well to hang onto the midfielder, but he showed all his quality.
Nathan Patterson at right-back also impressed and how Gerrard slots him for more frequent and necessary matchday exposure alongside James Tavernier is an on-going dilemma and discussion for the Ibrox manager. It's now not an isolated issue either.
Steven, Stephen and Sakala
Smiling Fashion Sakala and his Real Madrid goal may have been the stand-out, but the main take-away from the combined weekend performances was Stephen Kelly – a player very much in the mould of Steven Davis, but not a new discovery.
His potential was pinpointed by Steven Gerrard early on in his Ibrox tenure. Kelly was used in friendlies during the manager's first summer, drafted in as an unknown quantity and then handed an extended contract and competitive debut against Ayr United within a matter of months – then farmed out to the same club for experience a year later.
Two performances over the weekend exude the experience picked up then, and last season at Ross County, allied with the manager’s early faith.
Composed, with an eye for a well-weighted pass and, crucially, always available, he played the Davis metronome role with all the hallmarks of the Northern Irishman 15 years his senior, whether it was against the Seagulls’ second-string in Saturday’s second half, or late on against the Spaniards – the performance was consistently the same.
Where the Lowland League B team may once have benefitted him, Kelly has far outgrown the Academy or reserve set-up and now looks more than capable of remaining with the squad as a genuine option for the foreseeable – even with the added midfield strengthening from Lundstram, and potentially Nnmadi Ofoborh.
How Gerrard fits him in may be slightly easier than the the Tavernier-Patterson poser too, with Davis’ advancing years and Kelly’s emergence the manager has a like-for-like replacement and can manage his midfield without too much disruption in the centre.
Rangers did manage the game-minutes and cycle the squads over the two games in 24 hours, utilising the very depths of the first-team pool – which they will need to do to compete on all fronts next season.
Domestic trophies as well as a successful league defence are on Steven Gerrard’s agenda, plus the club’s European participation is practically guaranteed through December with the dawn of the Europa Conference League should attempts at the Champions League or Europa League prove fruitless. On Sunday’s showing that seems unlikely, but while the schedule will never be as congested as two games in 24 hours against opposition of the calibre of La Liga and English Premier League, the depth of the squad was tested and gave good indications.
More will be known once kick-off against Livingston comes on Saturday but there are options on both fronts.
Only Scott Wright maintained his place in both – another to make a case for regular involvement with his constantly attacking thoughts whenever in possession. Kelly featured heavily against Brighton, starting in an outfield squad averaging 24 years old then coming on as back-up to the more familiar first XI against Real Madrid with the average age and experience of 27.These were two separate teams with a little to spare – missing Kemar Roofe, Alfredo Morelos, Joe Aribo, Brandon Barker and George Edmundson entirely from the two games.
There’s still work to be done on the first – but, on average, three years of development and experience behind the more established squad plus the out of action players still to be considered, there is a deep pool prepared for all avenues next season.
The heavily linked Joey Veerman could add to it too, and any sales absorbed with the emergence of Kelly, Sakala and the growing confidence of Patterson, Wright and Cedric Itten.
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