As I watched Sky Sports' coverage last night pre-match, I was interested to hear that the Soccer Special panel had predictions of 3-0, 3-0, 2-0 and 4-0 to Manchester United. That to me summed up the total lack of respect for Rangers which came back to bite English Football on the backside.
I must admit, Walter's team selection had me a little bit frustrated before kick-off with Sky reporting that Steven Whittaker was playing left-midfield and Kirk Broadfoot on at right-back. However, when the game kicked-off it was clear that Walter Smith had pulled out a marvellous trick on the big occasion. It looked something along the lines of a 5-4-1 or 3-6-1 at times and the players carried out their instructions impeccably.
The English giants only tickled the Rangers goal on a few rare occasions with Javier Hernandez heading wide and Darren Gibson firing in a few long-range drives but when you have a keeper as reliable and talented as Allan McGregor it breeds a confidence amongst the players infront of him.
Steven Whittaker came in for a rough ride in last year's competition but he dealt with the threat of Ji-Sung Park and the several occasions where United tried to exploit his defensive weaknesses with a long-diagonal pass to Giggs in the second-half. Kirk Broadfoot played on the left-side of the defence and was one of Rangers' best attacking outlets throughout the game with the defender making a strong claim for a penalty on the hour mark. The main job of the full-backs was to nullify the attacking threats of the Manchester United wide-players and avoid diving into needless challenges, which Whittaker was culpable of last term.
In the centre of defence, Walter went for Madjid Bougherra, David Weir and Sasa Papac which worked perfectly with three of them striking up a perfect understanding in the Gers rearguard. Papac was absolutely immense last night and showed exactly what he can do after a few sticky patches in the Scottish Premier League. The Bosnian left-back was fierce in the tackle and gave a real sense of composure whenever he passed the ball to a team-mate. The 40-year-old David Weir had most eyes on him last night and the way Rangers played suited him to a tee. The deep defensive line from Rangers was ideal for Weir due to his lack of pace and if anyone did get in behind, McGregor, Bougherra or Papac would have comfortably dealt with it. Bougherra impressed yet again for Rangers and thwarted the threat of Wayne Rooney not for the first time. His charging defensive runs can be so deadly as the opposition are caught cold when they see a rampaging centre-half up the other end of the park when Rangers have been playing so deep for the rest of the game. What impressed me most about the three centre-backs was their quick ability to cover for each other if anyone was dragged out or went forward.
The defence was strongly assisted by a superb performance from Lee McCulloch who, at times, played like a fourth central defender. McCulloch had an all-round superb performance and was key to Rangers' result last night. His passing was immaculate and did not rush into any stupid decisions with the pressure being applied by United's high pressing game. Maurice Edu showed his real potential last night with an excellent display. The US international has had a poor run of form in the SPL, mainly due to his role in the 4-4-2 Rangers usually deploy. But last night, his inclusion in the team was another crucial brick to the defensive wall and he made some vital interceptions and blocks in the second-half. Steven Davis was not at his best last night but the flashes of ability were easy to notice as he drifted into some excellent positions to recieve the pass in crowded areas. Rangers three central midfielders were too over-powering for Gibson and Fletcher.
Steven Naismith had a difficult job of trying to link midfield to attack. Naismith has been impressive on the right of midfield this season but Smith decided to slot him on the left side with the ability to tuck in a help make Rangers compact in the centre. Having a good-worker like Naismith created numerous opportunities for Broadfoot to steam well-ahead of Naismith on the left-side of the pitch. Going forward though, I felt Naismith was a little bit restricted in the options he had on the ball and perhaps a Vladimir Weiss or John Fleck will be more needed at home to provide that little bit of magic or sparkle to create a chance for Kenny Miller.
Miller had the incredibly lonely and tough job of playing upfront on his own for Rangers. In the UEFA Cup run in 2007/2008, Rangers were extremely lucky to have two excellent strikers in Daniel Cousin and Jean-Claude Darcheville who were both adept at playing that role really effectively. Miller, to be fair, is not the same striker he was two or three years ago and has turned into a 'predatory' striker rather than an extreme worker. He always looked a threat when Rangers went forward but I felt Miller could have contributed more when the ball was coming away from the Rangers box and it was crying out for someone just to get into the right area and hold the ball up.
It could be classed as Walter's best tactical performance as a Rangers manager and easily outwitted his good friend Sir Alex Ferguson. Two more away matches at Bursaspor and Valencia still to come and I speak for all fans when I say that another Rangers performance like last night in those games would be very satisfying. The jury will be out on how Walter deals with the expectation of being more expansive at home and that was his major downfall last season as Rangers were crushed by Unirea and Sevilla.