Rangers now on road to redemption but two players must stay in team

With six cups finals remaining, the presence of Balogun and Diomande cannot be overstated

Vanquishing Hearts at Hampden in the Scottish Cup was not quite the full redemption job for Rangers, but it soothed some of the sores from the previous matches in the Premiership.

Defeat in Dingwall to Ross County and then a draw at Dens Park against Dundee demoralised a decent chunk of the Ibrox fanbase, leaving Celtic three points clear with five matches remaining. However, last weekend’s semi-finals – which set up the first Old Firm Scottish Cup final for 22 years – should act as a reminder that all is not completely lost for Philippe Clement and his team.

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While Celtic just crept over the line in a penalty shoot-out against Aberdeen, Rangers were far less dramatic in their despatching of Hearts. Cyriel Dessers scored twice in a perfunctory 2-0 victory. Rangers were not entirely at their best, but there was marked improvement from seven days ago in the Highlands. Clement will hope that this is the end of the blip.

Mohamed Diomande returned to the Rangers midfield and the team benefitted from his presence.Mohamed Diomande returned to the Rangers midfield and the team benefitted from his presence.
Mohamed Diomande returned to the Rangers midfield and the team benefitted from his presence.

Two reinstatements into the first team made a big difference to Rangers. Leon Balogun had only played 22 minutes of football since January 24 and was ill in the lead-up to facing Hearts, but he fitted in seamlessly beside John Souttar, not someone he has partnered often in central defence. Connor Goldson surprisingly made way for the veteran Nigerian. Balogun’s pace, aggressive yet calm defensive style and composure snuffed out most of Hearts’ attacks. Their talisman Lawrence Shankland was kept very quiet. There is a case for Balogun to remain in that defence for the rest of the season, no matter who partners him.

But perhaps the biggest shout should go to Mohamed Diomande. Rangers’ midfield looked flat without him in the preceding two matches, the Ivorian ruled out with a broken thumb. But sporting a support to protect his hand, he came straight back into the team and made a huge impression. He gives legs to this Rangers team, able to go box-to-box and drive the team forward. It was noticeable how much faster and accurate Rangers were in transition, and how John Lundstram and Todd Cantwell’s levels were elevated by the 22-year-old’s presence. Keeping Diomande fit is a must for the sprint finish.

Rangers now have a full week to recover and recuperate: St Mirren away, Kilmarnock at home, Celtic away, Dundee at home, Hearts away, then the Hampden showdown. But in essence, Rangers have six cup finals. There is no margin for error any more if they want to win the league and then complete the treble. In the aftermath of Hearts – and indeed before with Dujon Sterling’s comments – players alluded to a dip in confidence. Morale levels should be raised by making the third placed Jambos look very ordinary. There is no room for self-pity in a title race, though.

That’s where Clement will come into his own. His squad deeply respect him and he has shown excellent man-management skills since taking over at Ibrox. His impassioned defence of the team after Dundee struck of a father trying to shield his children. The Glasgow goldfish bowl brings enormous scrutiny, especially in a title race, and many of Clement’s players have not experienced it before. It was telling that man-of-the-match Dessers admitted as much after downing Hearts.

Leon Balogun and his Rangers defensive counterparts kept Hearts' striker Lawrence Shankland quiet.Leon Balogun and his Rangers defensive counterparts kept Hearts' striker Lawrence Shankland quiet.
Leon Balogun and his Rangers defensive counterparts kept Hearts' striker Lawrence Shankland quiet.

“Obviously after the past week you feel the pressure from outside but actually inside our dressing room we kept calm,” said Dessers. “We know what we do and if you see what we do in the last months, everyone saw what we are capable of. It was just the thing to find this rhythm back, this vibe back, and I think we can do beautiful things in the next few weeks as well.

“We played against a good team, they are third in the league and they deserve to be there. They gave us some difficulties as well but our defence and goalkeeper handled it very well. So to leave here with a good win should give us confidence and belief for the coming weeks. Everyone is looking forward to it.”

Dessers has had to work to win over the Rangers fans but he now has 19 goals this season and a Hampden double will no doubt be a major boost to his relationship with the supporters – and the chances of Rangers success in the next month or so.

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“You would have to ask the fans but for me, I love this club, I love being here, I love living here, I love everything about it,” the Belgian-born Nigeria international said. “It’s not an easy club but this club is so beautiful, and you want to do well for it. Look at the atmosphere, it was amazing, you want to give these fans something back. Today we gave something back but obviously you are also thinking about the next games in the league and the final of course.

“Obviously when you score two goals in a semi final and you qualify it’s a really good feeling. I think my performance was OK, it was good, I think it could have been better with a few moments, but overall when you score two goals you cannot complain too much.”

Rangers are in a better place than they were a week ago. Now it’s on to the next furlong in this increasingly energy-sapping race.



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