The message from Steven Gerrard to his Rangers squad yesterday was an obvious one. The Ibrox manager implored his players to “live in the now” at Pittodrie tonight, even if their Aberdeen assignment may appear like a hillock when set against the mountainous League Cup final awaiting against Celtic on Sunday. Gerrard’s mantra, though, is all the more powerful when considering what is on the line in the here and now for his side.
It isn’t simply three precious points required to ensure they continue to apply the pressure on their nine-in-a-row chasing adversaries. A remarkable 52-year high – 13 victories in their first 15 league games – will be equalled if Rangers prevail against Derek McInnes’ side. The club’s best return from this spell in a top-flight season subsequent to posting 13 wins and two draws in 1967-68 has been 13 wins, a draw and a defeat. Or, to put it another way, exactly the totals they would rack up with victory tonight.
It would put this season’s opening 15 matches on a par with the return for Dick Advocaat’s Rangers in 1999-2000. Winning 13 of their first 15 encounters in a top-flight assault has proved beyond the Ibrox club across all other campaigns in the past half-century. The prospects for such a run now would have seemed fanciful as Gerrard’s men leaked points regularly in the opening months of his term in management. It follows, then, that to be on the verge of a feat so extraordinary in the club’s annals indicates how dramatically the former Liverpool and England captain has driven up standards. “I’m very happy with the form,” said the Rangers manager, his team bidding to be eight points better off by tonight than at the corresponding juncture of last season.
“The schedule has been tough for the players, but they are embracing it, they are enjoying it and they are playing well. They are enjoying playing together. We just need it to keep going. Take each challenge as it comes and keep trying to be as consistent and as hungry as we can. They are the two main words we focused on in pre-season: consistency and showing our hunger in every game. Not coming off it or letting complacency set in or underestimating anyone. Go really full throttle in every game to see where it takes us.”
It might seem awkward considering what is to come at Hampden on Sunday, that the Premiership card takes Gerrard’s side to a Pittodrie that will provide them with a “fiery” contest that has the capacity for being a fraught one; even allowing for Aberdeen’s abject form against Rangers – who pulverized them 5-0 at Ibrox in late September – and Celtic this season. Gerrard elects to see the upside in this evening’s battle allowing his players no thought of saving themselves for Sunday’s mortal combat.
“It’ll certainly help the players in terms of the week,” he said. “It’s good to have a focus and a tough challenge in front of us in Aberdeen. My experience of finals is that sometimes you can wait too long and have too much time on your hands. The fixture list is what it is. We have known all along that, if we were to reach the final, it would fall after this fixture. So, I think the important thing for the players is to really live in the now. All you control is Aberdeen, and your performance in Aberdeen, and I expect to go up there and show everyone what we are all about. It is a great fixtue we are really looking forward to.
“I think it would be very niave to let your mind or your focus elsewhere – what’s behind Aberdeen or what’s further down the line. We have to give Aberdeen the respect they deserve and focus and perpare for the game the right way. Their form has turned again with four wins [and a draw] since Celtic beat them comfortably [ 4-0 at the end of October]. I’m sure what happened the last time we played them is to be a large part of their motiviation. But that is for Aberdeen to worry about. For me, it is about preparing my team and having them ready from the off to compete.
“We know Aberdeen will bring physicality to the game. So we know we need to handle that and stand up to that and at the right times, when we get the chance, show our quality.
“That will be the key: competiting, matching Aberdeen in the physicality, and believing we have the quality to go and hurt them. If we do that we’ll be alright.”
More than alright in historical terms.