SPL

Philippe Clement claims Rangers can reach another level as they seek top spot

By Sports Desk February 13, 2024

Philippe Clement insists Rangers can still reach another level as they look to go top of the cinch Premiership against Ross County on Wednesday night.

The Belgian boss took over the Ibrox hot seat last October after Michael Beale departed when the Light Blues fell to third spot, seven points behind leaders Celtic.

They then fell eight points adrift of the Hoops after a 2-1 defeat at Celtic Park in December but had two games in hand.

Rangers have worked their way back into serious title contention and a three-goal win over the struggling Staggies at Ibrox will see them go top for the first time since August of last season.

Clement has already put the Viaplay Cup in the Ibrox trophy room following a 1-0 final win over Aberdeen in December and has guided the Govan side into the last-16 of the Europa League.

However, the former Genk, Club Brugge and Monaco manager was again at pains to stress that short-term achievement is not important, saying: “I will not look at the league table (if we win). No. I will be happy if we win the game, that is the only thing.”

“I am not satisfied, I think there is still a lot of potential to grow,” added the Gers boss, who revealed defender Leon Balogun, who has been fitted with a mask to protect a facial injury, will be assessed with midfielder Ryan Jack dropping out as his game time is managed following his recovery from injury.

“That’s why I am looking forward to having preparation with the team, to really bring them to another level.

“I am convinced it is possible with the players that are in the building now but it is difficult to create that during a season with a game every three days.

“We are growing, we are getting better, I think it is clear to everybody, it is also clear in the data.

“There is more distance run, there are more sprints and more high intensity than a few months ago but we are not at the top.

“It is what you do in training and in games and how you set standards and what you want them to do.

“We are not a reactive team, we are an active team and that’s what we want to see.

“We want to be a dominant team with a lot of movement with the ball and a lot of movement and reaction after losing the ball.

“With that way, naturally the data goes up, it does in every team. But you need a really good preparation to go to the next level.

“At this level now we are pushing things to make it better and I think it will be better at the end of the season – if they keep freshness.

“If I stay with the same squad, playing the same 11/12 players all the time they will be tired at the end of the season, that’s why you also need to keep a good balance.”

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    Rangers’ recent regression continued with a grim goalless draw at Dundee which further dented their increasingly-fragile cinch Premiership title hopes.

    The Ibrox side lost for the first time ever against Ross County on Sunday in the poorest performance since boss Philippe Clement took over last October and the Gers boss was looking for a reaction against the Dark Blues.

    In a game played at the third time of asking after the Dens Park pitch was twice ruled unplayable, there was no improvement against a Dundee side who impressed.

    The travelling Gers fans urged their team on after the break but they lacked imagination and guile and again heard boos at the final whistle.

    With five post-split matches remaining including a trip to Celtic Park, the Light Blues are three points behind the Hoops at the top of the table and have hit the skids at the wrong time.

    Rangers will now prepare for the Scottish Gas Scottish Cup semi-final against Hearts at Hampden Park on Sunday with newly-acquired trepidation.

    Tony Docherty’s Dundee, who commendably clinched a top-six place on their return to the top flight, are now three points behind fifth-placed St Mirren and they deserved their point.

    It is now just two wins in eight in all competitions for Clement’s stumbling side.

    Utility player Dujon Sterling, midfielder Tom Lawrence and striker Kemar Roofe returned to the side with the latter making his first start since December 20 as Borna Barisic, Kieran Dowell and Cyriel Dessers dropped to the bench.

    Ricki Lamie, Owen Dodgson and Malachi Boateng were back for the Taysiders, who came close to scoring within a minute when Boateng’s low drive just escaped Ibrox keeper Jack Butland’s right-hand post.

    Dundee skipper Joe Shaughnessy limped off after 10 minutes to be replaced by Antonio Portales before Gers attacker Abdallah Sima outstripped the home defence but his low drive was blocked by the foot of Jon McCracken, the Dundee keeper saving another effort from the Brighton loanee moments later.

    Dundee played the better football. In the 22nd minute Butland parried a Luke McCowan free-kick from 25 yards and Scott Tiffoney got to the rebound first to help it on to Amadou Bakayoko to knock over the line from a yard out but the offside flag went up.

    Rangers toiled, threatening only occasionally.

    McCracken pushed a curling free-kick from Gers skipper James Tavernier round the post then saved a Connor Goldson header from the resulting corner but it was the more composed and fluid home side who were applauded off at the break.

    Rangers stepped up the tempo at the start of the second half but a spark of creativity was absent and Dundee’s defending was organised.

    In the 56th minute, Clement tried a shake-up and Dessers, Dowell and Rabbi Matondo replaced Roofe, Todd Cantwell and Fabio Silva and McCracken soon had to save from Lawrence’s drive from a tight angle.

    McCracken pulled off a fine save from Dessers’ curling shot as the Dees defence were stretched for once and held a tame Tavernier header but it was mostly huffing and puffing from the visitors while Dundee were always a threat.

    Worryingly for Gers fans, their side have suffered a dip in form at the wrong time of the season.

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    The Reds have a 3-0 deficit to overturn from the first leg if they are to make the semi-finals, a scenario which has echoes of their famous comeback to beat the Catalan side in a Champions League semi-final in May 2019 on their way to winning a sixth European Cup.

    After that victory his players remarked about the stirring speech he gave in the dressing room before kick-off and Klopp said, although he does not yet have anything planned, he can use that brilliant night at Anfield as a reference point even though they will not have the backing of a home crowd.

    “I usually don’t prepare these things like that, especially not the day before or four years before whatever,” he said.

    “I remember I said, ‘If we fail, then let’s fail in the most beautiful way’. And that’s exactly how I see it again.

    “After the game (last week) everyone in the stadium thought ‘that’s it’. Now it’s a week later I don’t think everyone thinks it is already decided

    “We want to win the game. If we want to win, we better play good. If we play good, we have a chance to win it. Then we will see.”

    That Barcelona victory is the only time in Liverpool’s long European history they have overturned a three-goal first leg deficit.

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    Liverpool hammered Atalanta 5-0 at home in a behind-closed-doors Champions League group game during lockdown in November 2020 – having lost the home leg 2-0 – and Klopp hopes they can capitalise on any indecision the hosts may have about how to approach their seemingly comfortable lead.

    “Tomorrow is more difficult because they don’t have to score at all,” he added.

    “We will see who deals better with the situation. If Atalanta go through then they will deserve it. If not, then something special will have happened.

    “We have to do better. It’s really not simple because usually you fight for everything but when you are 3-0 up it is not easy for them.”

    Despite their significant advantage, Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini is not underestimating the occasion as they seek to book only the second European semi-final spot in the club’s history.

    “We know that it will be one of the most important games in our history, if not the most important,” he told a press conference.

    “Even though we won the first leg, tomorrow we start again at 0-0. Our focus will have to be not to think about the result of the first leg.”

    Captain Marten De Roon added: “I don’t think only in Bergamo but I believe that all of Italy will be behind us tomorrow.”

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    Leao came in for criticism after last week’s first match, but showed a much better version of himself as Milan fought back from two goals down to take a 3-3 draw at relegation-battling Sassuolo on Sunday.

    The 24-year-old forward, who scored Milan’s first goal, recognises he needs to bring more consistency to his game.

    “I hope to help my team,” Leao told Milan TV.

    “If I don’t score a goal, I hope to play well and win. This is the most important thing, to move forward.

    “After the first leg, where I didn’t do very well, I was disappointed and with Sassuolo I wanted to give the right answer. If I make a mistake, I always try to come back even stronger, to learn from my mistakes.

    “I found the joy of doing well and helping my team-mates. I want to play better now. We know the comeback is possible. We have to start strong, try to score in the first few minutes and then play like a final.”

    Goalkeeper Mike Maignan is expected to return in goal after sitting out Sunday’s match as a precaution, but Simon Kjaer is a doubt after suffering a muscle injury in that match. Both he and fellow defender Pierre Kalulu missed training on Wednesday.

    Gianluca Mancini struck in the 17th minute as Roma took an impressive 1-0 victory at the San Siro last week, carrying on their good form since Daniele De Rossi replaced Jose Mourinho in the hotseat.

    The 2022 Europa Conference League champions came ever so close to making it back-to-back titles after they were defeated on penalties in last year’s Europa League showpiece and are 90 minutes away from another semi-final.

    But De Rossi knows AC Milan are far from beaten as they prepare for the second leg in Rome.

    As quoted on romapress.net, he said: “Milan? They will fight with everything they have. This is their last resort, they want to win and achieve one of their objectives for the season. It will be difficult.

    “There are characteristics of the opponent that must always be respected and you need to think about the opponent’s coach’s moves. The first leg with Milan was quite balanced, perhaps it went a little better for us. Milan won’t change their tactics too much, but we must not overthink our own gameplan.

    “We will prepare the match to win it, to try to score a goal which would be a blow for them even if it might not be decisive.

    “Milan are a very strong team, they are better than us, but in the first leg we showed that we are not that much inferior and I told my team that we can play for it. We are one step away from an important milestone such as a European semi-final.”

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