Good and bad, there have been a few landmark moments in Rangers’ first season under Steven Gerrard so far. Some have provided markers for their improvement, like their 2-2 draw away to Villarreal in the Europa League or their Old Firm derby win over Celtic. Others underline how much progress is still required.
Two of the latter such games have come against Aberdeen – first, in the opening game of the Scottish Premiership season and secondly, in the semi finals of the Scottish League Cup. Indeed, the Dons have become something of a yardstick for Rangers and Wednesday night’s game at Pittodrie will provide another measure for both teams.
For Rangers, Wednesday’s games will be the biggest game of their season so far. Despite recent inconsistency, Saturday’s 4-0 home win over St Mirren raised hopes at Ibrox that the Govan side could challenge for the title this season. Celtic hold a six-point lead over their fiercest rivals, but were that gap to widen any further Rangers’ title credentials would surely be fatally damaged.
In fact, if Gerrard’s team lose on Wednesday night they will slip to third place in the Scottish Premiership table, with Aberdeen leapfrogging them into second. There would be a certain symbolism to that. It would be a sign that Rangers are no longer looking upwards at Celtic plotting a course to the surface, but are instead concerned with simply keeping themselves from being dragged down.
Aberdeen have finished second in each of the last four seasons. They suffered a sluggish start to the 2018/19 season, but have found real momentum in recent weeks, losing just one of their last 11 matches in all competitions. Unlike Gerrard, Derek McInnes hasn’t been able to bolster his squad with Premier League talent, but the Dons are getting better with every match.
Gerrard was appointed at Rangers to close the gap on rivals Celtic. This time last year, there was a 14-point gulf between the two sides, so in one sense that former England and Liverpool captain has so far achieved his objective. But what will the points difference matter if Rangers once again finish outside the top two?
The Rangers manager seems wary of the step up in quality required to claim victory at Pittodrie. “We will have to be better against Aberdeen,” Gerrard said after Saturday’s game – Rangers won that match 4-0, making clear the level he is demanding from his players. “In possession we looked quite dangerous but we didn’t look like we had any aggression or intensity out of possession at the weekend.”
Games between Aberdeen and Rangers are rarely pure footballing spectacles, so Gerrard is right to point out the aggression and intensity his team will need to get a positive result. The Ibrox outfit have show many times over the season so far that they are capable of raising their game for the big occasion – look at how they played against Celtic on December 29 – and they must do this again on Wednesday.
There’s little doubt that when it comes to strength in depth, Rangers have the edge over Aberdeen.
Gerrard implored the Ibrox board to spend big in January and they did that to a certain extent with the addition of Jermain Defoe, Steven Davis, Matt Polster and Glen Kamara to an already deep squad. But Rangers have had an edge in depth over Aberdeen for years and that ultimately didn’t matter.
What happens over the next few weeks could come to define Rangers’ season.
Until now, Gerrard has ticked off each and every box of the criteria that led to his hiring. Things could quickly unravel, though, and defeat to Aberdeen this week could start an all too familiar downward spiral for Rangers.