Tomorrow night Rangers begin the second half of their European adventure. After a much improved albeit unadventurous showing in the Champions League, Sporting Lisbon come to Ibrox to take on the Scottish champions in the knockout phase of the Europa League.
Much of the pre-match build is based over what system Walter Smith will play in the first leg. Does he stick with the tried and tested 5-4-1 or with some new players at his disposal he could go for a more aggressive 4-5-1. Lee McCulloch’s injury will have been a massive blow to any of Walter’s plans and it gives him a few key decisions to make before kick-off.
It would be very tempting to play the tried and trusted 5-4-1 keeping the game tight and trying to hit Sporting on the counter. Kyle Bartley impressed playing in Lee McCulloch’s defensive midfielder role on Saturday but his natural position is in central defence. He could however line-up alongside Davie Weir and Madjid Bougherra in a five man defence with Sasa Papac playing on the left and Steven Whittaker on the right.
The midfield four, again, is debatable. With Steven Naismith on the right, Steven Davis and Maurice Edu central, the choice would be between Vladimir Weiss and El Hadji Diouf on the left. Kyle Lafferty has reportedly shaken off a bout of Glandular fever so could play as the lone front-man, a role he has settled well into since Kenny Miller’s departure.
Playing five at the back does make Rangers an extremely tough prospect to breakdown. How well drilled Bartley will be on the “Walternaccio” system in such a short space of time could be a big factor. When it comes to picking a system for any game one must consider the oppositions system and style. And they way Sporting will likely set up could see Walter changing to a 4-5-1 on Thursday.
Sporting’s season has stuttered so far this season. Although they sit in third place they are a massive 23 points adrift of FC Porto and 12 points behind Benfica in second. Qualification for next year’s Europa League is virtually guaranteed, so Paulo Sergio will be able to focus his team’s efforts towards a successful cup run. And it’s in this competition where they have discovered their best form, an away win in Lille is no easy feat.
Paulo Sergio will most likely set his team out in an attacking 4-2-3-1, which could easily be seen as a 4-3-3. On Saturday, both sides of Sporting were there to see, two goals from striker Helder Postiga put them 2-0 up against Olhanense, only to see them pegged back to 2-2 and leave Olhão with only a point. Supporting Postiga upfront will be Chilean winger Matias Fernandez on the left and Montenegrin forward Simon Vukevic on the right.
The midfield battle is where this game could be won or lost. Sporting will look to the central midfield trio of Maniche, Andre Santos and ex-Rangers fan favourite Pedro Mendes. This is where the danger could lie for the home side. If left 3v2 Rangers midfield could struggle to have any influence on the game and could find themselves without the ball for long periods of the game. All three players are very comfortable in knocking the ball around and given enough opportunities they could potentially pick Rangers apart.
To counter Sporting’s 4-3-3 Walter might look to play 4-5-1 very similar to the formation on Saturday in the 6-0 win over Motherwell. The obvious trio of Steven Davis, Maurice Edu and Jamie Ness would be the instant choice. Kyle Bartley could also play a part in filling the McCulloch role and Davis could be played wide right to provide stability and an extra body in midfield. That would give either Diouf or Weiss a role on the left, but free to roam without the midfield being outnumbered.
Walter Smith would be more likely to play Steven Naismith if fit and use Davis influence and passing abilities in the centre of the field. The variety of options will seem like a luxury to the manager, as before the January window Rangers options looked limited with a very thin squad.
With either Diouf or Lafferty upfront, the movement of either player has the potential to cause the Sporting defence problems. Anderson Polga is no spring chicken any more and can struggle against pacey forwards. Daniel Carrico is Polga’s partner and is undoubtedly a great young talent, however his own goal against Olhanense, that saw the game finish all square, shows that he is far from the finished article and a red hot cauldron atmosphere at Ibrox could give Rangers the edge they need.
A fascinating two-legged encounter in prospect, will Sporting come to Glasgow looking for the away goal or will they take a more cautious approach? Will Walter go for his tried to tested 5-4-1 or will he look to dominate the game more with a slightly more attacking 4-5-1. Questions that will all be answered come Thursday night.