Thursday night will see Rangers play the first of three games in seven days, games which could inevitably define their season. They meet Sporting Lisbon at Ibrox on Thursday night, play city rivals Celtic on Sunday, followed by the return leg of the Sporting Lisbon tie on Thursday week, in what could potentially be the make or break moment in Walter Smith’s last year in charge of the Scottish champions. With so much riding on the outcome of these games, it raises questions about the longevity of Smith’s team given there’s still three months of the football season to play.
Before a ball was kicked back in August, questions were already being asked as to whether Rangers had the depth to challenge on all fronts. A threadbare squad, no money to bring new players in and the Lloyds banking group hovering around Ibrox like a bad smell indicated this would be another season where Smith was expected to work wonders with limited resources.
At this point in the season Smith can be proud of what he and his team have achieved. Second in the league table, five points behind league leaders Celtic with two games in hand, reaching the last 32 of the Europa League, a CIS cup final to look forward to in March and a 5th round Scottish Cup replay against Celtic. Smith’s side are still competing in four competitions, despite working with one of the smallest pool of players in his time as Rangers manager. However as we reach the business end of the football calendar, this will count for nothing in May if Smith cannot win one of the two ‘big’ competitions his team are competing for.
In the 2007-08 season, Smith lead his team to the UEFA Cup Final in Manchester, had his team competing for the league and also took them to the two finals of the Scottish domestic cup competitions. In this season Rangers won two out of the four competitions they were in, yet the season was still regarded as a failure as Rangers failed to land either the league title or UEFA Cup.
With the fixtures beginning to pile up for Rangers, you have to take a hard look at the squad Smith has at his disposal, and question whether they’ll last until May. On top of this, the possibility of injuries has to be taken into account and what effect they could have on the side. It was only a few weeks ago that Rangers lost midfielder Lee McCulloch for the season to a knee injury. For those who doubt McCulloch’s midfield abilities, it was clear to see during the recent 2-2 Scottish Cup draw with Celtic at Ibrox, that Rangers badly missed their resolute midfielder in the middle of the park. Such was the impact with one player missing, this also served as a stark warning to the Rangers boss that any more personnel losses could not be endured.
With Thursday nights tie against Sporting Lisbon looming, it was suggested that Smith may play a weakened team against the Portuguese outfit, in the hope of resting certain players ahead of Sunday’s vital Old Firm league clash. This was quickly rebuffed by Smith at the press conference ahead of the clash, but you have to question if this is about pride or is it foolhardy?
If you asked any honest Rangers supporter at this point in the season which competition they would rather drop out of, it would surely have to be the Europa League? An honest football fan would no doubt tell you they wouldn’t want their team to drop out of any competition they’re competing in, but there comes a time when rationale must be exercised, and the limitations of what you can achieve be realised. It would be nothing short of a miracle if Smith could guide his team to European glory this time around, having missed out in 2007, having arguably had a stronger side.
This will be Smith’s final year in charge of the financially stricken club, and there’s no doubt he’ll be eager to end his second stint with the club with a triumphant swan song. The sceptic in me however, believes this week could possibly see the start of a living three month nightmare for Walter Smith, which will see his Rangers side crumble under the pressure of the intense challenge of competing in four competitions. Time will tell.