Why both Alfredo Morelos and Fashion Sakala could miss Rangers' trip to Lyon on Thursday
For one week at least, the old adage of ‘taking one game at a time’ can be summarily dismissed by both Old Firm clubs.
As an increasingly intriguing Premiership title race takes shape, the dead rubber nature of the final round of Europa League group stage fixtures to be played by Rangers and Celtic on Thursday night means they are of secondary importance to the league assignments facing them three days later.
There may still be the not insignificant matter of UEFA prize money up for grabs – €630,000 for a win and €210,000 for a draw can’t be sneezed at by either club as Rangers travel to Group A winners Lyon and Celtic play host to Real Betis in Group G.
But with both of their fates in European football beyond Christmas already settled – Rangers will be in the last 24 of the Europa League while Celtic go into the same stage of the Europa Conference League – the focus of the great rivals will primarily be trained on next Sunday.
Squad rotation is set to be the name of the game for both Rangers manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst and his Celtic counterpart Ange Postecoglou as they look to maintain domestic momentum.
Van Bronckhorst is certainly making no qualms about his order of priorities this week as Rangers gear up for their meeting with Hearts at Tynecastle at noon on Sunday. It’s a fixture which has provided the Ibrox side with no shortage of grief in recent times, having lost two and drawn one of their last three visits.
The Scottish champions will hope to buck that trend with a victory which would reopen a seven point lead over Celtic at the top of the Premiership table ahead of the Parkhead men’s home game against Motherwell three hours later.
Van Bronckhorst has already started spreading the load throughout his first team squad, the strength of which he has expressed his satisfaction with since replacing Steven Gerrard a fortnight ago.
For Saturday’s 3-0 home win against Dundee, he opted to leave veteran midfielder Steven Davis and winger Ryan Kent out of his matchday squad altogether. The changes he makes for the 90 minutes at the Groupama Stadium in Lyon on Thursday are likely to be even more widespread.
One of the first considerations for van Bronckhorst will be the pending suspensions facing both Alfredo Morelos and Fashion Sakala. Both players are just one booking away from a ban which would see them ruled out of the first leg of their knockout round play-off tie on February 17.
That’s a risk which hardly appears worth taking, meaning Morelos and Sakala could both be rested ahead of the game against Hearts.
There are options available to van Bronckhorst to reshuffle his front line. Kemar Roofe, an unused sub against Dundee, is likely to have the central striking role. Scott Wright, who delivered a lively contribution from the bench on Saturday, and Juninho Bacuna could join Roofe in the front three.
Van Bronckhorst also has scope to tinker with every other department of his team. So far, he has ditched the regular changing of goalkeeper which Gerrard had adopted since the start of this season. But this could be one occasion when the Dutchman feels it makes sense to rest his number one Allan McGregor and hand the gloves to Jon McLaughlin.
It’s also an ideal opportunity to provide Nathan Patterson with some much needed game time. The Scotland international could either replace captain James Tavernier at right-back or be utilised on the right side of midfield if van Bronckhorst chooses to give Joe Aribo a break.
Leon Balogun, absent since limping out of the Premier Sports Cup semi-final defeat against Hibs, has returned to training and the Nigerian central defender could return against Lyon.
The match might also be the ideal moment for Ryan Jack to make his first starting appearance since February. The Scotland midfielder looked sharp on Saturday in his third sub outing since his return to action following calf surgery.
John Lundstram, who has been restricted to just two substitute appearances under van Bronckhorst so far, is another likely starter in Lyon if van Bronckhorst wants to keep any of Davis, Glen Kamara and Scott Arfield in reserve ahead of the Hearts test.
“I’m happy that we are in a position where we can rotate against Lyon because we did very well against Sparta Prague (in our last group game) to be already in the next stage (of the Europa League),” said van Bronckhorst.
“So that’s another game I can use to bring in some players and give them minutes. We have almost the whole team there to go in this busy period. So I will use my whole squad.
“Steven Davis and Ryan Kent were out of the squad (against Dundee) but others came in and did their job and that’s what you want.
“I could give Ryan Jack minutes because I think he is also a very important player for the team.
“We know it’s going to be a hard game next week (against Hearts) as well. Normally I work from game to game but we have the luxury a little bit to already think about Sunday.
“Because we have to be fresh, we have to be strong as well, because of the task we are going to have against Hearts.
“But I’m confident that the team who play on Thursday will also be a team who can have a good result because the balance in the team and the squad depth is good.”
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