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Walter Smith’s game plan for Rangers in the cup final...


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Walter Smith and Gordon Strachan renew their rivalry in the Co-op Cup final

All football managers make their tactical choices – it is otherwise known as taking stabs in the dark – and they either come off gloriously or they appear abject failures. Unfortunately for Walter Smith, many Rangers fans will pick over their team’s Cooperative Insurance Cup final loss yesterday and decree that Smith’s plan on the day fell into the latter category. Rangers were too woeful for too long against Celtic and caution on Smith’s part surely contributed to the 2-0 defeat.

Smith once more went with a 4-1-4-1 shape against Celtic – his favoured system recently in these Old Firm affairs – and it appeared to make Rangers feeble in the final third of the pitch. A gracious Gordon Strachan, sensing the tactical debate brewing at Hampden last night, quickly added the old line which goes: “Och, tactics don’t mean anything, it’s all about the players.” Yet in the same breath Strachan admitted that he had chosen his unusual Celtic lineup and strategy early in the week, and had worked on them for days on the training ground. So by that testimony alone, such decisions by managers cannot just be tossed aside, as if it is only what the players do that matters.

Smith put out a cautious Rangers team yesterday, and the upshot was a grim, chasing game for the Ibrox side, while Celtic at times breezed past them. Kenny Miller played as a lone striker for an hour, with Kyle Lafferty once more afforded his refugee status out on the left, until Smith decided that the plan wasn’t working. By this stage, however, the momentum was with Celtic, and it more or less remained so, despite Rangers becoming slightly more attack-minded following the arrivals of Nacho Novo and Kris Boyd in the second half.

Even in deciding to play one man through the middle, it seemed odd that the role went to Miller rather than Lafferty, given the succession of high balls pumped forward which Stephen McManus and Glenn Loovens hungrily devoured. There was something out of sorts about Rangers, and the roots of it appeared to stem from the team’s strategy right from the outset.

It will frustrate many Rangers supporters that, in such a one-off cup final, Smith will not commit to playing two men in attack, which would make Rangers better equipped to hold the play up in front of opposing defenders. For Miller yesterday, for the hour that he was on the field, it was a gruelling and fruitless shift.

Strachan, by contrast, does not have his own troubles to seek in terms of his strikers, with Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Georgios Samaras currently unable to find the net. Yet, even in dropping these two players to the bench, it didn’t enter the Celtic manager’s head not to go with two strikers at Hampden. Celtic improvised, using Aiden McGeady as a partner for Scott McDonald in attack, and it was a plan which paid off richly for Strachan.

The dourness which blighted much of Rangers’ play was not appealing to watch. Indeed, all it seemed to serve to do was invite Celtic to come at Smith’s team. Admittedly, there was one difference on the field which had nothing to do with tactics, which was this: Rangers had no one in their ranks to match McGeady’s play on the day.

On the separate issue of Boyd, Smith proved that he is not a man to be bogged down or distracted by personal agendas or vendettas. Many had spoken of the striker being cast into the outer darkness this weekend after his midweek suspension from training, but anyone who truly knows Walter Smith should know that this is not how he acts or behaves. The Rangers manager regularly rises above such pettiness and would never have sacrificed such a player for the sake of personal vengeance. Nonetheless, Boyd’s arrival, like that of Novo, seemed too little, too late for Rangers on the day.

Smith is an engaging Rangers manager, who has brought a level of success back to the club since replacing Paul Le Guen in January, 2007. Yesterday, however, his plan was a painful failure.

And another thing...

My comments did a disservice to Strachan

I’m not sure if I owe Gordon Strachan an apology exactly – I wouldn’t go that far – but I certainly now feel I misjudged the Celtic manager to a degree when I chided him last week for his alleged “sexist” comment following his team’s loss to St Mirren in the Homecoming Scottish Cup.

Quite a few of us expressed dismay at a piqued Strachan saying to Real Radio’s Michelle Evans: “Trying to explain this defeat to you would be like you trying to explain childbirth to me.” On paper, at least, it looked a crass thing to say.

Strachan, however, felt frustrated by subsequent media coverage of his remark, and this week spoke in private to some of us about where he stood on the issue. And while I still believe there is an issue among many Celtic supporters about their manager’s public conduct – the topic comes up time and time again – on this occasion, having heard Strachan out, I now believe I did him a disservice in addressing his behaviour.

Strachan vehemently disputes the sexist allegation, pointing out that over the years he has made his “trying to explain childbirth” comment to many male sports reporters. He also explained other aspects of his postmatch conduct last week which, while insisting that these remain off the record, helped to explain further what the Celtic manager was about in the aftermath of the St Mirren defeat.

My overall contention remains the same: Gordon Strachan’s public conduct can often be too abrasive, facetious and catty for many fans’ liking. Whether we like it or not, this is an issue with supporters. But in this particular case I am happy to admit that I judged Strachan’s comportment too rashly.

Ibrox feeling the strain

There was more tub-thumping yesterday at the financial state of Rangers, with the club’s bankers said to be about to pounce with something akin to an elite commando unit to try to reclaim some of the £25 million debt that exists at Ibrox.

I’ve no doubt some of this was rather dramatically put, and that Rangers, come what may, will survive. But the next two to three years are definitely going to be quite a strain on the club. The most recent financial figures posted by Rangers were shocking – a six-month loss of £4 million and turnover down by £13 million on the previous figures – and the club looks poorly positioned, in contrast to Celtic, to cope with the grim climate currently gathering around football.

Rangers are in ailing health, and the lost opportunity of the summer of 2006 remains vivid. Paul Le Guen, who this weekend is back near the summit of French football with Paris Saint-Germain, was supposed to be the catalyst for a whole new chapter in Rangers’ history. When it didn’t happen, the club simply lurched back towards its old feebleness, hampered by the financial strains that have haunted Ibrox for ten years now.

Yesterday’s Cooperative Insurance Cup final defeat will only add to this depression.

How things have changed

In 1970, the then 16-year-old Derek Johnstone caught a morning train from Dundee, scored the winning goal for Rangers in that afternoon’s League Cup final against Celtic in front of 90,000 at Hampden, and then caught the evening train home again. In the aftermath of that Rangers win, despite Johnstone becoming an overnight sensation, not one reporter spoke to him for the coveted “quotes” following the game.

In our fevered media age, can anyone imagine such an innocent fate being Darren O’Dea’s at Hampden yesterday? And what about the amazing passing of time since Johnstone’s big moment. “I cannot believe it is 39 years ago now,” an incredulous big DJ said over his Hampden lunch.

Rangers

4-1-4-1

Average rating 5.8

8 Allan McGregor Quiet first half but cast off his inactivity with a moment of quality by throwing himself to his right to push away Nakamura’s free kick and then stopped O’Dea.

6 Steven Whittaker Several early ambitious runs, cutting in from the right, brought initial threat but was forced to defend much more and was often in McGeady’s wake.

6 David Weir Up against McDonald, mopping up one threat with composed header back, but in the second half he suffered when asked to match Celtic on the ground.

4 Kirk Broadfoot An injury doubt before game, the only thing of note in the first half was sending a deep pass out of the pitch. Mostly anonymous until penalty and sending off late on.

6 Sasa Papac The Bosnia international offered an attacking threat, setting up two chances for his midfield in first half. His presence was more limited in second period.

6 Steven Davis The Northern Ireland player’s usual zest was limited in the first half, with a token effort blazed over the bar. Came much closer just after the interval with a raking shot.

5 Lee McCulloch The former Scotland player acted as insurance in front of the back four but barely seen in attacking sense. Worked hard and made a vital block in the six-yard box.

6 Barry Ferguson Plenty of endeavour but not able to influence contest the way he would have liked. Covered every blade of grass and snapped into tackles but lacked creativity.

5 Pedro Mendes Given licence to get forward but, like his colleagues, not in the contest in first period, illustrated by the former Portsmouth player drilling a free kick into the wall.

7 Kyle Lafferty Duelling with Hinkel but gradually became the holders’ biggest threat towards the end of the first half, bringing a superb save out of Boruc with searing shot.

5 Kenny Miller The lone Ranger up front. Caught offside four times in opening 23 minutes and used up energy in wasted runs. Last involvement was breakaway that was snuffed out.

Substitutes: Nacho Novo for Miller, 58min. Kris Boyd for Lafferty 76. Christian Daillyfor McCulloch 82. Substitutes not used:Graham Alexander, Maurice Edu. Booked: Novo, Weir. Sent off: Broadfoot.

Celtic

4-4-2

Average rating 7.2

8 Artur Boruc Produced a wonderful save in first half from Lafferty, pawing the ball wide with an agile dive. Survived a scare after a back pass but denied Novo with great leap.

8 Andreas Hinkel Superb reading of the game, with early interceptions setting the tone. The Germany full back was a man possessed as he shrugged aside challenges.

8 Glenn Loovens Aerial presence notable in early exchanges and created threat at other end with a header that flew just over the bar and then had another effort cleared off the line.

7 Stephen McManus Commanding presence at the heart of the defence. The captain showed his leadership qualities throughout and timed almost every tackle well.

7 Darren O’Dea Ireland central defender playing at left back and was comfortable on ball. Gave additional height to the defence but also posed threat in attack, including scoring first goal.

6 Gary Caldwell Used as holding midfield player rather than normal centre-back. Covered plenty of ground and broke up Rangers’ attacks to provide platform for reply.

8 Shunsuke Nakamura Given free role, switching from left to right. used crisp passing on sticky pitch. Easily the most accomplished performer, and came close with free kick.

8 Scott Brown A typical Brown performance of limitless energy, topped off by a desire to score. Came close with a thundering shot just over the bar before a volley narrowly missed.

6 Paul Hartley Worked hard on right side of midfield, and while he did not employ his usual attacking bent, he gave a disciplined display before making way for Samaras.

7 Aiden McGeady Repeatedly tested Whittaker down left wing with pace. Looked hungry and came close on occasions. Brought down for penalty, which he converted.

6 Scott McDonald Worked feverishly to drag Weir out of comfort zone. Little joy around penalty box in first half but linked well with McGeady to effect for the latter to enjoy space.

Substitutes: Georgios Samaras for Hartley, 72min, Mark Wilson for O’Dea, 105. Jan Vennegoorfor Samaras 120. Substitutes not used:Mark Brown, Marc Crosas. Booked: Hinkel, O’Dea, McGeady, Boruc.

Referee D McDonald. Attendance 51,193

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/foo...icle5914438.ece

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