It is certain that Alfredo Morelos will be given the nod over Jermain Defoe to lead the line for Rangers in their Europa League play-off first leg at the home of Legia Warsaw this evening. However, former Ibrox midfielder Alex Rae believes the Colombian ought to be grateful to his veteran rival for leading him on to the straight and narrow.
Football pundit Rae believes it is no mere coincidence that the ill-disciplined Morelos of last season has been replaced by a player who now appears capable of being incendiary only in front of goal. He puts this firmly down to Defoe’s influence – both in the fact that the 37-year-old’s conduct in all aspects of his football life are exemplary and through his being a striker with the goal-sniffing capabilities to leave Morelos on the sidelines should he lose his focus.
Between them, Morelos and Defoe have claimed 15 goals this season, the former ransacking nine in only eight appearances. It means Defoe, as a back-up to Morelos, is a far cry from struggling pair Kyle Lafferty and Umir Sadiq last season.
Steven Gerrard’s men have been a team on the front foot in going into their trip to the Polish capital on the back of five straight wins. It took them till the closing weeks of the former England captain’s first campaign to string together such a sequence.
Rae, pictured, is in no doubt that the dynamics between Morelos and Defoe – patently struggling for match sharpness when he arrived from Bournemouth on loan in January – are integral to a Rangers transformation this season that is allowing them to bare their teeth… and have supporters of champions Celtic fretting about what those molars might do when the teams meet a week on Sunday.
“I like the rivalry between Alfredo and Jermain and it is healthy when you have two strikers banging in the goals. The two of them are bouncing off each other and bring different elements to different games,” said the 49-year-old.
“If I was Morelos I would be looking to the example of Defoe and think there isn’t a better model pro about right now. Only Morelos can get a grasp on his temperament but the more good pros around you then they rub off on you. Rangers have the likes of [Steven] Davis, [Scot] Arfield, [Ryan] Jack and Defoe, as role models and leaders.
“It is interesting that Steven Gerrard says he doesn’t really go into the dressing room and he lets the players run it themselves. That is what you need because younger guys need guided by the older heads.
“I was at the Kilmarnock game and Kirk Broadfoot and Alfredo had a few coming together during the games. Senior players will always try and goad younger players, it happens. I fell into the trap in my younger days and then did it when I was the older player. Broadfoot blocked him off a few times but the encouraging thing was Morelos didn’t react or bite on it.
“So the early signs are there that he has calmed down a little bit and it is up to him to try and maintain that now.
“Never mind his temperament, look at the goals he has banged in. To be halfway through August and be on nine goals already, you have to think ‘what can he achieve this year?’.
“Everyone has a price at Rangers, but Steven has said he won’t sell Morelos late in the window. He told any buyers to come forward early and that hasn’t happened, which is good for Rangers. “I remember when he first came in he ran offside four or five times in the first half against Celtic and I thought ‘what am I watching?’. Now he is terrorising teams – just look at the way he led the line in Denmark the other week there. He has some brilliant attributes but his key one is goals. If he keeps up this form his value is only going to go up the way.
“People are bound to take notice of what he is doing, because the hardest part of football is scoring goals. Last year you would have looked at the Celtic team and wondered how many Rangers players would get in their team. It is different now.
“Rangers were toothless for years and they were getting bullied in Old Firm games and losing four and five goals. It was embarrassing. You look at last season and they had a team who could compete and win Old Firm games.
“Reflecting on last season, they fell short at places like Livingston and Dundee, games they are expected to win. These games are as important as winning Old Firm games as they are the ones that win you leagues. When you look at both teams middle to front, they both have tremendous options.”