Which Rangers players have Covid? Testing time for Steven Gerrard's squad depth in vital Europa League and Celtic fixtures
That favourable scenario of having a comfortable lead after the first leg at Ibrox, which might have allowed manager Steven Gerrard to rest certain personnel ahead of the first Old Firm game of the season, failed to materialise as Rangers laboured to a 1-0 win over Armenian champions Alashkert.
But the manifest for the Scottish champions’ charter flight to Yerevan on Wednesday afternoon was dramatically altered nonetheless as they were confronted by the positive Covid-19 results from their latest round of testing.
Gerrard was the most notable absentee from the passenger list and he will watch in self-isolation at home as his team look to notch up a fourth consecutive qualification for the Europa League group stage.
Six players who were expected to be involved in Armenia were also no-shows at the airport - both of Gerrard’s senior goalkeepers, Allan McGregor and Jon McLaughlin, along with James Tavernier, Calvin Bassey, Scott Wright and Ryan Kent.
With John Lundstram and Kemar Roofe already ruled out because of suspension, the timing could scarcely have been more problematic for Rangers. Add in the fact they face a currently vibrant Celtic side at Ibrox in the first Old Firm game of the season at Ibrox on Sunday, it’s perhaps the biggest test yet of the strength in depth of the squad Gerrard has built since taking charge three years ago.
But while Rangers’ bench may contain some less familiar names on Thursday evening, with members of their B team having been called in to make up the numbers, assistant-manager Gary McAllister still has a strong starting eleven at his disposal.
The only debutant likely to feature is goalkeeper Robby McCrorie, the 23-year-old who has had loan spells at Berwick Rangers, Morton, Queen of the South and Livingston over the past few seasons.
McAllister has no doubts that the former Scotland under-21 international, who was also called up to the senior squad by Steve Clarke last year, is ready to handle the occasion.
“I have been impressed with him from day one of pre-season,” said McAllister. “He is a young man who was pretty shy, a towering guy but very quiet. Since we came back this pre-season, I have seen a different Robby.
“That has been enhanced by the fact he went out and played last season at Livingston and gained some invaluable experience in the Premiership in Scotland. I have noticed he has become more confident in and around the first team players. More talkative, more chatty when he comes in in the morning.
“He’s a keeper that works, like the ones I played with, he’s a real workhorse. There is more confidence in Robby as a man and it’s been nice to see that maturity in someone coming out of his shell and maybe for the first time thinking ‘I belong here’.”
Scott Arfield is among the senior players Rangers will rely on to steer them through a testing set of circumstances. The 32-year-old, likely to join Steven Davis and Glen Kamara in midfield against Alashkert, is ready to accept that responsibility.
“(The leaders in the squad are) probably more important than normal,” said Arfield. “It’s down to us to steady the ship here. But what an amazing opportunity.
“We’ve got a huge game over here. You can look at any negatives you want because that’s probably what people are writing about, how many players are missing, but if you look at the mentality and ability we’ve got then we are certainly in a good place for Thursday night, that’s for sure.
“It isn't an ideal situation, of course, but every club in the country has been affected by this virus. We still have a strong squad over here, with the addition of the young boys getting experience, so we have to take the positives out of it, rather than the negatives.
“We are always confident because of the personnel and ability we’ve got in the dressing room.
“I think at times like this, it magnifies why you bring in such a large squad, why you bring in the technical ability we’ve got.
“It’s normally injuries and suspensions that derail you but with this virus, it throws another predicament in there for us.
“But we are always confident. Obviously the heat will play a part but that’s European football and another obstacle you have to overcome. We are always optimistic about our chances of getting through any round in Europe.”
Gerrard will be in contact with both McAllister and his first team coach Michael Beale in the hours leading up to kick-off and while the absence of the former Liverpool and England captain from the technical area is a cause for regret among his players, Arfield insists it shouldn’t have a negative impact on their performance.
"It won't be that much different,” added Arfield. “Obviously you want your leader and your manager on the side, but he can't play the game for you. You need to take responsibility.
"He can give you instructions before games but ultimately it's the players who go over the line to perform.
"We would rather he be here, of course, but it's the players who need to take the desired result back and bring the big European nights back to Ibrox."
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