|Venue: Ibrox Stadium, Glasgow Date: Thursday, December 15 Time: 20:00 GMT|
|Cover: Listen to commentary and follow text updates on the BBC Sport website and app; watch highlights on Sportscene|
On the eve of his first competitive game in charge of Rangers, Michael Beale said he felt “very comfortable in and around the building, in and around the town, in and around this team” .
His first 17 days in the role have been a gentle reintroduction to Glasgow and Scottish football, with the Englishman leaving with Steven Gerrard when they left Ibrox for Aston Villa just over a year ago.
His contentment will be tested on Thursday, although a struggling Hibernian will welcome visitors to Ibrox as the Scottish Premiership resumes after the World Cup hiatus.
What awaits the 42-year-old – who has just 22 appearances as Queens Park Rangers manager under his belt – in a gloomy Rangers after a disappointing few months?
“I am aware of the responsibilities of this job and the expectations,” Beale added. “I wanted to so I came back with my eyes open. I’m sure I will have difficult days, but it’s important that we move forward with a clear identity.”
What are the main issues?
On his return to the club, Beale was adamant that Rangers are not “broken”, but his appointment is obvious all was not well at Ibrox ahead of the World Cup break.
The Englishman has mentioned his team’s ‘on-pitch identity’ several times over the past two weeks and the first evidence is that his Rangers side look different to that of his predecessor, Giovanni van Bronckhorst.
Under the Dutchman, Rangers have been accused of having no recognizable attacking plan. It has become common to see balls flying aimlessly into the box rather than patterns of play being constructed. Fans grew tired of their team’s lack of spirit.
Compare that to Beale’s first game in charge, a friendly against Bayer Leverkusen last weekend. “It has to be on the front foot, we have to play like the big team, so we have to take the ball and be exciting to watch,” the 43-year-old said.
And so it was. Ryan Kent has been given a gifted license to roam the front line, scoop up pockets of space and work his way into promising positions. “The pleasure I had was the enthusiasm and the intensity of the players,” said former Ibrox striker Mark Hateley.
Yet while Kent could prove part of the answer to one problem, the striker is also part of another problem.
He is out of contract this summer, as is striker Alfredo Morelos. The same goes for the experienced midfield trio of Scott Arfield, Steven Davis and Ryan Jack.
Rangers recruitment over the past year has not been a success. Note how familiar their starting XI is to whoever won the title penultimate season.
Ultimately, Van Bronckhorst paid the price, so Beale will have a particularly close eye on the next few games until the window opens in January as he assesses where he needs to strengthen.
Former Rangers striker Steven Thompson described the task ahead of him as a “massive rebuild”, with the next two transfer windows being “the biggest the club has had in recent years”. No pressure on the rookie manager, therefore.
Is the title race over?
Recovering from a nine-point deficit may seem unlikely, but it’s not entirely insurmountable. Celtic were six back last Christmas but led the Premiership at the start of February.
Before the break, Celtic were fluid, scoring 16 goals more and dropping only points at St Mirren. In games where Ange Postecoglou’s side lost leads late – against Dundee United and St Johnstone – they found a way to win.
Although they never stop, Rangers are slow to get going. Late equalizers against Livingston and St Mirren salvaged points to hold the gap in single digits.
Rangers certainly can’t afford to drop points in December or lose the New Year’s derby. In fact, they might not even have the leeway to slip by the end of the campaign.
Victory over struggling Hibs would close the gap to six points, with the leaders visiting third-placed Aberdeen on Saturday.
Rangers have lost just one of their last 46 league games at home – against Celtic last season – and are unbeaten in their last 16 top-flight encounters with Hibs, making a surprise surprise unlikely. of Beale’s opening night.
“After a break, you’re really looking forward to coming back and doing it again,” said captain James Tavernier. “It’s new faces, new tactics and a new start for the team. We have to keep going.”
What are the fans saying?
Safe to say, the response to Beale’s return has been mixed among those who spoke to BBC Scotland.
Although his familiarity with the club and the group of players made him an early favourite, some fans feel “a bit aggrieved”, said Ian. “Everything points to a lazy search by the council.”
“We have to make sure the team plays well,” added Anthony. “I’m a bit concerned about the loyalty the club gives to players who I think have let the club down for too long. I think this season is already over and we have to rebuild the squad.”
The age-old debate of “when is a title finished, without being arithmetically finished?” keep on going.
Whereas Olivier went straight to the point saying “the league is over”, Fraser offers more optimism with, “It’s never over. Only if, or when, the players think it will.”
What’s less controversial is the weight of the Old Firm clash. Ronnie added: “With three Old Firm games still to play, it’s not over. A win in the January derby puts Celtic under pressure. It’s still doable.”
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