WITHOUT wishing to get too carried away (and at the risk of stating the obvious), already Rangers have improved from last season in the Europa League by reaching the second qualifying round.
While not at all being disrespectful to either side, FK Shkupi were an evidently better team than Progres Niederkorn, and the Light Blues would have enjoyed an even more comfortable evening than they did in Skopje last night had, as the manager said, we been sharper up front.
Of course, steps have already been taken to address Steven Gerrard’s concern with the addition of Umar Sadiq as another striking option and, given his pedigree, it will be very exciting to see how he performs once he is fully up to speed with the rest of the squad.
‘Comfortable’ certainly is the key word to describe this tie. Barring Shkupi’s early chance at Ibrox which came off the top of the bar, and the late opportunity in Skopje, which Allan McGregor did well to stop, this was a well-disciplined performance from Gers. Even at this early stage, they look infinitely better in a defensive sense than they did last season.
The additions of Connor Goldson and Nikola Katic look to be shrewd, and the duo have already built up a notable understanding which kept the back door firmly shut over the two legs.
That the defence looks so solid could perhaps be down, in part, to Allan McGregor. His experience at commanding the famed, watertight Walter Smith backlines of the legendary manager’s second spell certainly looks to have added something significant.
The full-back area also appears to have had a bit of a makeover. For years Gers teams through numerous managers have used the left and right backs as attacking weapons. Now, while this is still obviously a ploy of Gerrard’s, the job of newly appointed captain James Tavernier and new recruit Jon Flanagan (whose Premier League quality is evident) appears to be to defend first and foremost before thinking of attacking.
The former does still appear to be a major attacking outlet for the Gers with Flanagan offering support on the left, but tending to remain slightly more reserved in his offensive duties. That’s no bad thing at all, and again contributes to that more solid feel this Gers team has so far this season.
Indeed, while thinking back to Smith’s teams, it’s easy to draw a comparison between Flanagan and Sasa Papac. Papac was incredibly reliable defensively out on the left, but he could also contribute offensively on that flank too – very much like Flanagan.
And, when either Flanagan or Tavernier did attack, it was notable the gap left by either man going forward was immediately plugged by either Ross McCrorie or Ryan Jack, the two sitting midfielders for the second leg.
Overall, the composure Gers largely had on the ball during the game, and the way they kept Shkupi at arm’s length was excellent, and, again as the manager alluded to, sets a good template for how to play away from home in European competition.
Through both legs, it was Rangers directing the tempo and it was Rangers who always seemed capable of going through the gears at any given moment if they needed to.
Whether it is Osijek or Petrocub Gers face next week, the dynamic will be different given the first leg is away from home.
Both clubs will pose a challenge, but especially Osijek, who defeated PSV Eindhoven home and away in last season’s competition.
A tight, disciplined performance away to either, similar to what we saw in Skopje last night, should hopefully set-up a fantastic second leg to look forward to at Ibrox.
Seldom in recent times has Gers had a second leg at home – and a positive result in Croatia or Moldova to bring back to Govan could make it a real night to remember.
Just finally, credit must go to Steven Gerrard for the refreshingly honest post-match interview he gave to RangersTV last night.
Rather than focus only on the positives (of which there were many,) he had clearly identified the area of his team which needs attention.
His words, too, won much praise on social media from supporters, with seemingly most very pleased and encouraged by his assessment.
The work the manager has done in an exceptionally short period of time is remarkable and if the team continue to improve at the rate they have developed already, then this might just be a special season for Rangers Football Club.
And another thing…
None of us in the Rangers media team had ever traveled to Macedonia previously, so naturally, we proceeded to the former Yugoslav nation with a little trepidation.
That trepidation was unfounded, however. Shkupi and the Macedonian FA deserve massive credit for their professionalism and help they gave us through the duration of our stay in Skopje.
Every request made by us was delivered and then some, and the staff of Shkupi could not have been any more helpful to us at the press conference and the game itself.
The Arena Philip II is a terrific setting for a football match, and it is totally understandable why UEFA were suitably impressed enough to award last season’s Super Cup match.
Skopje is a fantastic city to tick off the list, with the people of Macedonia exceptionally friendly towards us at every turn.
I’m sure I speak for all of us in wishing Shkupi well for their upcoming league season.