by Alan Clark | Deputy Editor
Rangers travel to Dumfries on Saturday to face Queen of the South in the first of potentially six Premiership play-off ties. It has been an incredibly rocky year for the Ibrox club, and a third-place league finish has resulted in the need to face off against the Doonhamers for the right to play Hibernian at the semi-final stage.
It would have been inconceivable to most when Rangers started their Third Division campaign that they wouldn't win the second tier and seal a return to the top league. Most expected a Gretna-style triple promotion with league titles to boot. However, nobody expected Hearts and Hibs to occupy the division, and most couldn't predict the farce that Rangers have been on and off the field this season.
The normal league season came to an end last Saturday, with Rangers drawing two-each with champions Hearts at Tynecastle. It felt like a defeat for the visitors, given they were 2-0 up until the 81st minute. But for the most part, Rangers were in control, playing well and looking confortable - that will please McCall the most.
Questions must be raised at his baffling decision to bring on Lee McCulloch with ten minutes to go and pushing man-of-the-match Darren McGregor out to the right, however. Whilst the two goals that followed weren't directly McCulloch's fault, the shuffling of the defence and of McGregor in particular unsettled the back line.
With Hibs dispatching Falkirk at the same time, the result became irrelevant as Alan Stubbs' side secured second place and a break from playing duties until the play-off semi-final stage on May 20th. And so it came to pass, Queen of the South lie in wait for the Teddy Bears.
Head-to-head this campaign
30-08-14: Rangers 4-2 Queen of the South
12-12-14: Queen of the South 2-0 Rangers
10-03-15: Rangers 1-1 Queen of the South
09-04-15: Queen of the South 3-0 Rangers
This shows that Queens have picked up an impressive seven points from 12 from Rangers this term - on the other hand it shows how much the Gers have struggled against their opponents by dropping eight points against them. Even in the one game they picked up all three points, Rangers went in at the break 2-1 down and had to recover from that in the second half to take the win.
Queen of the South: WWDWL
As you will see above, Queens have won three of their last five fixtures. This run started with the shock 3-0 win over Rangers at Palmerston in early April, which was a masterclass in counter-attacking football. The away side had around 60 per cent possession and good chances in front of goal, yet it was three very well taken goals that gave James Fowler's side the three points. The loss in their last game came at Livingston, where they rested some players given their play-off position was secure. Given the hosts were in a last-day relegation scrap, the final score was not a real surprise, nor was it a dent in their confidence going into Saturday. Perhaps ominously for Rangers, Queens have won all five of their last five home ties; defeating Raith Rovers, Cowdenbeath, Rangers, Falkirk and Dumbarton - conceding only three goals in the process.
Rangers' recent form has been inconsistent to say the least. Since losing on that Thursday evening in Dumfries, McCall's men have remain undefeated, but have only won two of the last five. A comfortable 4-0 victory over Raith Rovers at Ibrox was followed by a frustrating 1-1 draw at Livingston. Fortunes improved with a 3-1 win at Dumbarton, however two late goals were needed to draw level with Falkirk in the next game. The last outing was at Hearts, where a comfortable 2-0 lead was blown in the last ten minutes, exposing the defensive frailties and obvious disorganisation when McCulloch is in the heart of defence. The last five away trips have yielded two wins, two draws and a loss - but some comfort can be taken from the performance at Hearts as well as an impressive 2-0 triumph away at Hibs.
Queens have moulded themselves a reputation for being a fast, counter-attacking side that can win games at home and on the road. Their home performances have shown their comfort at playing on their artificial surface, something that Rangers have evidently had major problems with. Or have they? In both fixtures on the pitch, Queens scored from a set-piece or on the counter and both times Rangers got it tactically very wrong.
Fowler knows how to beat this Rangers side at home with ease - soak up the pressure and exploit Gers' high midfield line along with their notoriously slow and fragile defence by launching quick counter moves and one-touch passes at times. It sounds formidable and dangerous for McCall, but a solution has already been talked about - and shouldn't be affected by the playing surface. This is not a league game, it is a two-legged play-off situation. A more defensive outlook in the game may allow them to leave Dumfries with a positive result to take back to Govan.
Queens are unlikely to change the way they set up, given their success not only against Rangers at home twice, but against Hibs both home and away. For McCall, he has two options with his defence. One, he maintains faith in a back four, or two, he goes with three at the back and gives two wing-backs the freedom to attack in stages (ala Hibs away). Of course, personnel is a big factor here. The presence of McCulloch is doing more harm than good, so a pairing of Marius Zaliukas and Darren McGregor, if he chooses a back four, should provide a more organised and solid rearguard - as was shown in the 80 minutes they had at Tynecastle.
For me, the result will boil down mostly to how Rangers approach the game. If they attack in numbers and refuse to learn the mistakes of the previous two visits, then it is likely Queens will pick them off, utilise the free space and get at least a goal or two, maybe more - which could be fatally damaging for the Gers in the overall picture of the two legs. However, if they take a more cautious approach and look to nullify Queens' threats such as Gavin Reilly and Danny Carmichael, then they can achieve a promising result to build on for the return leg at a likely near-capacity Ibrox.
Despite this defensive plan's ability to work well for McCall, I can still foresee problems at the back and perhaps a psychological problem for the team, so a Queens goal is likely. Having said that the squad will be eager to repeat the 80-minute performance from Gorgie - and they have enough in the locker, through Haris Vuckic, Nicky Law and Kenny Miller among others, to win this away leg.
Queen of the South 1-2 Rangers