It might seem a stretch to believe that Rangers’ fortunes can pivot on their summer acquisition of a 32-year-old free transfer. A pick-up from a club that couldn’t survive in the English Championship last season.
Yet, the ability of Steven Gerrard’s men to negotiate a fraught fixture first up in this Covid-19 campaign had everything to do with the assertive presence of Leon Balogun, signed a week ago from Wigan. Rangers fizzed in the first period at Aberdeen. However, an old failing left them vulnerable to a sting in the antiseptic atmosphere of an empty Pittodrie.
They should have established a decisive lead as their movement had a disjointed home side in serious disarray. Instead, they only had a one-goal advantage, gained for them by Ryan Kent’s 21st minute smart strike.
It is understandable that the importance of Alfredo Morelos to the club is continually talked up. Understandable, too, that club’s followers are fretting over the fact a man who has netted 59 goals in the past two seasons could be spirited away at any moment, with Saturday’s Premiership opener potentially his last outing for the club.
Yet, why Gerrard’s team find themselves in a desperate struggle to stop Celtic reaching the historic summit of ten straight titles is their goal concessions, not goal scoring, in the early part of this year – ahead of the pandemic curtailing the season in March. A period during which the Colombian only netted once.
Rangers’ most damaging shortcoming was being unable to see out games, and hold on to leads, as they dropped the points that left the SPFL able to call runaway leaders Celtic as champions.
The Ibrox side never looked like starting this campaign in the manner they concluded the last as a consequence of the authority Balogun exuded in his debut partnering Conor Goldson at the heart of the visitors’ defence. They stood up as Derek McInnes’s men were able to exert a degree of pressure. Before they hurt their own prospects when Andrew Considine was fortunate not to hurt Scott Arfield by lunging with a straight leg and studs up on the substitute to earn a red card four minutes from normal time.
The 32-times capped Nigerian international Balogun – described as “outstanding” by Gerrard – was clapped into the dressing room by his team-mates. It was recognition of a crucial contribution, which included dusting himself down after he battered his head on the upright having been yanked back by Scott McKenna at a corner early in the second period. A “welcome to Scotland” Balogun called it. His bruised bonce aside, it was the perfect welcome, the player acknowledged.
“It was a clean sheet which I was happy about, but it’s always about the team,” he said. “Straight after the final whistle you always get an initial feeling and I felt I had played well.
It was a tough challenge and if we’re honest with ourselves then we should have done much better in the second half. Then again, it’s not an easy place to come and play football but we stood up to the challenge they gave us. It was nice to get back in the dressing room and the manager was full of praise for the whole team.
“But he gave me that little bit, the applause and that was nice. It was a great compliment, I was very happy. It’s about the team though and you are only as good as your last opponent. For me it’s about keeping that level up.”
Balogun concedes his arrival at a team that fails if it isn’t first in the autumn of his career requires a mindset adjustment. Even as the Berlin-born defender pointed out that he has considerable experience of playing in the Bundesliga and the English Premier League.
“If you look at the way the football world goes, to get that opportunity at my age is not something you should take for granted. Especially if you don’t have a big name” said the player, not eligible for Rangers Europa League last 32 decider away to Bayer Leverkusen on Thursday that seems a lost cause owing to the 3-1 first-leg deficit.
‘I really want to embrace it. It’s a big season and if we could actually accomplish our aims it would be a major achievement. I still have to fully realise just how big a club this is. I am starting to grasp it more and more. I think a huge part of it is the fan culture. Unfortunately we don’t have them with us at the moment, but I could tell from the reception I’ve had on social media that there is a lot of pressure but also a lot of support and love.
‘‘I’ve played like this before, even though I have never played for the championship. It’s just about getting used to it again. It is a bit more intense than what I have been used to for the past two or three years but I like it – to be on the front foot the whole time,”
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