There are games, such as the Europa League qualifier his team face at home to Maribor tonight, on which Steven Gerrard will be judged as Rangers manager. And there are games, such as the ones he played with his outlandish post-match comments on Sunday at Aberdeen, on which he will make judgments to further his managerial prospects.
The 38-year-old Englishman struck a more conciliatory tone about events at Pittodrie yesterday as he met the media ahead of tonight’s third-round qualifying first leg. There was a return to the candid and straight figure who has impressed with the calm authority exhibited in his first management role. In short, he was altogether removed from the figure who frothed that Rangers had suffered poor refereeing decisions “for seasons” and who felt “the world was against us” after the straight red card shown early on to Alfredo Morelos for kicking out at barging opponent Scott McKenna in an encounter the ten-man Ibrox side only failed to win because of a stoppage-time equaliser. A travesty of a result, Gerrard implied, because his side were a “class” apart from Derek McInnes’ men.
Maybe the SFA’s decision yesterday to commute Morelos’s red to a yellow card in part prompted the emollience shown by Gerrard yesterday – which extended to him offering “credit to the SFA and the referee department” for correcting an error, and acknowledging the “difficult job” of officials.
Heck, to Gerrard’s real credit, his candour yesterday extended to him admitting his post-match conference was, in essence, a bit of theatre to play to the gallery. He did so after it was put to him that he had split opinion in being described as both cute and naive for his claims.
“Everything I say people will have a split opinion on,” he said. “My job is to protect my players and my club and we’re looking for a mentality change and we want that siege mentality from everyone at Rangers moving forward.
“Sometimes you have to say certain things to get an advantage in another area.
“I didn’t say the comments to disrespect Aberdeen or Derek – I have nothing but respect for them. They finished above us the last two seasons, so we respect them and we know they are a dangerous team. But I believe at the weekend we were the better team and, if people have a split opinion on that, I have no problem with it.”
Gerrard feels his players have been “buying in” to his managerial methods on all fronts, while accepting that there is much “gelling” and “a lot of work and improvement to come” from a recast squad that boasts 11 new players.
The desire for a third centre-back to add to the duo of Connor Goldson and Nikola Katic who have solidified a previously soft centre remains, and the pairing are likely to be tested beyond what they have experienced at Ibrox against their Slovenian opponents tonight. Maribor arrive at the third round of the Europa League qualifiers having disposed of Serbians Partizan Tirana and Georgian side Chikhura without the concession of a goal, and have seven clean sheets from their nine games played since returning from close season.
Yet, they appeared to show a certain vulnerability at the back in their 5-2 league victory away to Aluminij on Sunday. However, it must be noted that they were only breached after making all three substitutions on going three-up in little over an hour.
Rangers’ ability last week to oust Croatian side Osijek – the subsequent capture of their captain Borna Barisic described as a “coup” for the club by Gerrard – is entitled to build belief for their Maribor assignment.
Croatia lie 15th in the Uefa rankings, 15 places above Slovenia. The Rangers manager believes he has identified weaknesses, even if he would have preferred their initial eye-balling to have come away from Govan.
“They definitely have areas we can exploit in games that I have watched last season and this season – even in games where they have kept a clean sheet,” he said. “They gave a couple of chances away which the opponents haven’t capitalised on. We have told our lads they will not get tons and tons of chances so when they do get them then it’s important to take them.
“It’s difficult to judge in terms of how strong the Croatian league is compared to the Slovenian one. Osijek were a very dangerous team and we have respect for Maribor with their Champions League experience. But I don’t think they will be miles apart in terms of their class.
“In an ideal situation with the crowd we have and if I could pick and do the fixtures I’d have the second leg at home. It is what it is and we have to deal with it and look for a positive result.”