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More questions than answers from Saturday


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Lee McCulloch was the appointed spokesperson for Rangers' Old Firm defeat. He was dignified in defeat. He was also blameless, on account of the fact he never unpeeled his tracksuit. He had a punter's - eye view of Rangers failings and could not fail to hear the audible groans of another championship challenge squandered.

"I think a lot of fans might have chucked it now but, certainly in the dressing room, we haven't," said McCulloch. He did so with his head down and with words delivered in hope rather than expectation.

Undeniably, Rangers are in a bad way. Players are being squeezed into a system that suits some and stifles others. There are as many players playing out of position as there are players performing poorly in their preferred ones. This morning, Walter Smith faces up to some of the most serious decisions in his long association with the club.

The most pressing is what to do with his ailing captain. Barry Ferguson had a 10-minute energy burst and 80 minutes of toil. If good players are made better in good company, the converse also applies.

He is suffering a death of a thousand cuts in the midfield. He is not fit enough to dictate a game of this magnitude as he once did. After three serious operations, he may never again reach the peak of his craft. His outward frustrations represent the limitations imposed by his battered body and the limitations around him.

Steven Davis, at present, is the best central midfielder at the club, but he spent the last 20 minutes of Saturday's derby at right-back.

The loss of Kevin Thomson has been profound, but if a holding player is what made Rangers tick in the past, what has happened to Maurice Edu, Brahim Hemdani or even Christian Dailly?

The system happened to them or, more accurately, two of them. Hemdani has made the fatal error of making an enemy of Smith, and the Algerian malcontent, one of the club's highest earners, has become Rangers' equivalent to Bobo Balde.

Rangers are now obliged to play 4-4-2 for as long as Kris Boyd keeps scoring. When he doesn't, such as at the weekend, they invariably toil.

Smith has made the ultimate sacrifice for his unique goalscorer. He has disregarded his pragmatic principles and now Rangers trail Celtic by seven points. Privately, he knows his team would be in better fettle had he persisted with last season's 4-1-4-1 for big games.

Dropping Boyd for a derby, where once commonplace, would have been viewed as a sinful act given the striker's 18-goal spree. With two derbies remaining, Smith may have no option but to revert to a system that best accounts for Rangers' deficiencies.

Kirk Broadfoot's claim to a regular role at right-back has been enhanced in the three games he has deputised for Madjid Bougherra at centre-back. His naivete enabled Scott McDonald to fashion a sublime winner on Saturday but, more importantly, Steven Whittaker has only undermined his prospects of a regular game with a serious of lamentable displays.

Whittaker was utterly hapless at the weekend: limp in the tackle, ruinous with his passing and even shorn of the confidence to get beyond his immediate obstacle.

He has been with the club for 18 months and while a lack of match sharpness can be used in mitigation for his recent output, the signs are Whittaker lacks the mental fortitude to succeed amid the relentless pressures of Old Firm life.

His hesitancy compounded the situation on the other side, where Sasa Papac has carved out a niche as a safety-first full-back who only occasionally indulges his adventurous streak. His reluctance to overlap is part of the wider problem on Rangers' left side of attack. Charlie Adam was the latest beneficiary of a desperate rota system adopted to patch-up the problem position, but he was so lacking in energy that he spent chunks of the game keeping company with Papac in his own half rather than offering an outlet.

Kyle Lafferty has discovered that playing wide left for Burnley is no preparation for doing likewise with Rangers. Already, he is in danger of becoming consumed by his anxieties and affected by the moans of his team-mates. He lacks the conceit and devilment that are prerequisites for Old Firm prosperity.

"It's not his fault that he cost that amount of money," said McCulloch of the noose-like millions spent on his potential. "He's a quality player: he's got pace, he's got everything, and maybe if he believes in himself a little bit more he'll go to the top."

It is hard not to sympathise with Lafferty. He is a modern-day Alexei Mikhailitchenko, without the Ukrainian's graceful elegance. Mikhailitchenko arrived in a record £2.2m transfer from Sampdoria in 1989, having inspired the USSR to the European Championship final and finished in the top five in European Player of the Year awards. He arrived as a central playmaker and left a wealthy but unfulfilled left winger. His is a cautionary tale for Lafferty and for Smith.

Versatility has become Rangers' greatest curse, but McCulloch refuted suggestions that team has regressed since last season, despite early European elimination and a widening gap conceded to Celtic.

"I don't think we've gone backwards," he said. "I don't know if we are a better team than last year yet, because it's not the end of the season. Maybe we are more pleasing on the eye. I think we've progressed with the signings we've made. They've been quality and it is all about clicking and gelling together."

"I don't think it's impossible for us to claw back seven points. Celtic did it to us last season. I think we have to look at going unbeaten for the rest of the season."

McCulloch was not so emphatic on his own situation. A regular contributor on the big occasion last term, a back injury has scuppered his season. He has even experimented with centre-back to modify his game to the capabilities of his body. He has been used sparingly in a position that has gone unclaimed for half a season but stresses he is pain-free and motivated to return, despite persistent speculation that he will join Stoke City, or any other lower-end Barclays Premier League teams in the January window.

"We'll wait and see what happens, but I want a few more medals and a few more games," he said. "I would love to stay here. I want to be part of putting a run together and winning the league. You want to play in the big games and I did that in most of the big games last season.

"The injury I had did set me back and it's hard getting your match fitness back. If you aren't getting on, how can you get match fit? It's a bit of a Catch-22 for me."

The same could be said for his manager as he surveys the debris of an Old Firm defeat.


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Many points from the writer are true IMO.

Totally agree Boab. Sadly Barry's days are over, we must play Steven Davis through the middle with Mendes.

We need Thommo back asap.

:rangers: :unionflag:

It's ok for us to say Fergie must go...but will Smith....

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