Rangers fans will probably be sick of hearing this by now, but NK Osijek will ensure Steven Gerrard’s men have a tougher tie than the routine 2-0 win over Shkupi.
The Croatians have pedigree in the Europa League, impressively seeing off PSV Eindhoven in a qualifying tie last season. In order for progress to be as smooth as possible, Rangers will need to have four men in key areas on their game tonight in Croatia and at Ibrox next week.
Osijek have a fondness for wide-play, and tend to use both flanks to exploit the opposition and stretch them defensively. Their wide men Peter Bokaj and Gabrijel Boban are their main sources of inspiration. A big plus point however is the fact that Boban has picked up an injury that will see him miss both legs of the tie, but this is unlikely to mean that Osijek shift from their reliable style of attacking play.
Therefore, it’s vital that both James Tavernier and Jon Flanagan are at it defensively from the off. New club captain Tavernier has, in the past, been highly criticised by sections of the support for lackadaisical defending. His trademark continues to be his bombing runs forward from right-back, but he’ll have to be alert at all stages of this tie as traffic will be coming his way.
Rangers supporters are still getting used to Flanagan, but this isn’t a night for teething problems either. The former Liverpool man may not actually be up against a recognised right winger given some injury problems the Croatians have. However, nothing can be taken for granted, and Flanagan must expect Osijek to come at him with overlapping runners.
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Osijek like to play a high-line, and it’s something that worked so well against PSV last season. Rangers, however, have two key men down either flank that could exploit this.
Daniel Candeias can frustrate at times, but his energy is second to none in the squad. The right-winger had a highly impressive first season at the club and won the hearts of fans with his 100% commitment to the cause attitude. He has the pace to really get in behind the Croatians tonight, and it’s important his final ball is better than it normally is. With Morelos in dire need of good service up front, Candeias needs to play a starring role tonight should Gerrard pick him.
Down the other side, Jamie Murphy is another who has the pace and directness to make Osijek pay for their high-line. The former Brighton man has a tendency to cut inside onto his right foot, but it’s important tonight he uses his space wisely and not be too one-dimensional when he gets space beyond the defence.
Rangers are likely to hit on the counter tonight and use their own wide-men to cut open Osijek. However, in order for this to be successful, Gerrard’s men will have to soak up periods of pressure down both sides and ensure crosses aren’t heading for the over 6ft Mirko Maric. It’ll then be the job of Murphy and Candeias to exploit the high-line and create real openings down either flank.
It’s sure to be a big night for Rangers, and they need their key men to perform at both ends of the park.