Rangers count cost of Slavia fall-out - with one player going under microscope next week
For Rangers, the fall-out from last season’s Europa League elimination at the hands of Slavia Prague now has the potential to prove as costly as it was unsavoury.
Tuesday evening’s 2-1 defeat against Malmo in Sweden underlined just how much Steven Gerrard’s team miss the metronomic calming influence Glen Kamara provides in the heart of midfield on the European stage.
The three-match suspension Kamara received from Uefa for his understandably enraged retaliation to Slavia defender Ondrej Kudela’s repulsive racial abuse at Ibrox back in March was always going to be a major concern for Rangers manager Gerrard when this season’s Champions League campaign came along.
So it proved in the first leg of their third qualifying round tie when the absence of the Finnish international midfielder was keenly felt in a match where Rangers were simply unable to retain possession as effectively and for as lengthy spells as they invariably do when he is on the pitch.
The Scottish champions are going to have to find a way to overturn the deficit without Kamara at Ibrox next Tuesday night in what will be a major examination of John Lundstram’s credentials at European level.
The signing of Lundstram from Sheffield United this summer was perhaps an indication of Rangers preparing for the potential departure somewhere down the line of Kamara whose performances at the Euro 2020 finals can only have heightened interest in him from other clubs.
Lundstram has impressed in pre-season for Rangers and the 27-year-old clearly possesses a high level of technical assurance in possession and a wide range of passing.
But while he produced a couple of eye-catching moments against Malmo, picking out accurate long-range passes which turned defence into attack in an instant, much of the action passed him by on what was his European debut.
Lundstram will undoubtedly improve as he adapts to the different demands on that stage but time isn’t on Rangers’ side as they pursue a place in the group stage of the Champions League valued at anything between £30m and £40m.
With the stakes so high, Gerrard will hope to have a stronger hand at his disposal next week. He was without seven established members of his first team squad on Tuesday.
In addition to Kamara, defender Leon Balogun and striker Kemar Roofe were also suspended. Balogun will be available again but Roofe is banned for another three games. Ryan Jack is still closing in on a return to full training, while minor injuries ruled out Joe Aribo and Ianis Hagi. Perhaps most tellingly, Alfredo Morelos was back in Glasgow training on his own as he completed quarantine requirements following his return from international duty last month.
If the Colombian striker is up to speed in time, his return might just be the crucial factor in Rangers’ favour for the second leg against Malmo.
Cedric Itten didn’t perform poorly in Sweden, holding the ball up smartly, but the Swiss international striker simply lacks the kind of personality which Morelos so often brings to the party on European nights for Rangers.
Assuming the Rangers defence can avoid any repeat of the collective brain freeze which saw them concede twice inside the first four minutes of the second half in Sweden, it remains a tie they can and should win.
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