The Big Three: a preview of Rangers v. Kilmarnock

Manuel Pascali, courtesy of KFC

This season Rangers Report will run a series of Match Previews entitled, the Big Three, prior to each match.  Rather then write in generalities about teams I rarely see – we will ask people who follow the opponent on a daily basis to provide some insight on their club.  Their task is to identify a Big Three — three aspects of their club that Rangers supporters should keep an eye on.

written by – Russell Abercrombie

Kilmarnock travel to Ibrox Stadium on Sunday to take on Rangers for the first time since February 2012, an event dubbed “Admin Day” as it was the first Rangers game since the club was placed into administration.  The Ayrshire side prevailed that day, winning 1-0 thanks to a Dean Shiels winner.

A lot has changed since then of course, with not one player in theKilmarnock match day squad remaining at the club to this day.  In fact, two Kilmarnock players from the squad that day (Shiels and Cammy Bell) are now plying their trade at Ibrox, the same amount as from the Rangers squad (Lee Wallace & Lee McCulloch).

It has been a testing time on the field in recent years down Kilmarnock way, with the club narrowly avoiding ending up in the relegation play-off last season thanks to a 1-0 win at Easter Road on the final day.  Alas, the tide had seemingly changed with the dismissal of assistant manager Sandy Clark (a divisive figure at the club thanks to some pretty unnecessary remarks made in 2010) and the introduction of Gary Locke as his replacement.  However, like in all good stories, we’ve hit a snag in recent weeks – losing four matches on the trot.

Alexei Eremenko, courtesy of SNS

Kilmarnock:  The Big Three

1.  Alexei Eremenko

A lot will be said in the build-up to this about Kris Boyd facing off against the club which he left in the summer.  But given Boyd’s recent form, and Ally McCoist’s tactics against Hearts it seems unlikely that he will start.

Rangers fans should be more concerned about dealing with Killie’s playmaker Alexei Eremenko in all reality, with the enigmatic Finn coming on to some real form in recent months.  During his first spell at the club, he dazzled and wowed the country with his vision and coolness on the ball – a trait sorely lacking in Scottish football.

‘Losa’ as he’s known, returned to the club towards the end of last season, decided to stay for this campaign and has finally got his fitness levels up, and boy is it showing.  His pass to set up Rory McKenzie in the build up to Kilmarnock’s equaliser at Tannadice on Saturday is a thing of beauty.  He’s ran the show in the majority of our wins this season and another stellar performance this Sunday would give Killie a far greater chance of success.

Our last cup game at Ibrox (a 3-0 home win in 2011) saw Rangers play kick Eremenko off the park, and not many would be surprised to see McCoist try similar tactics to nullify his threat three years on. Jamie Hamill will have to be at his best to protect ‘Losa’, and if he succeeds in that task then an away win will surely be on the cards.

Tope Obadeyi

2.  A new tactical outlook

Kilmarnock fans were rightly lambasting Allan Johnston last season for what was perceived as overtly negative ‘long-ball’ tactics, and a total rethink has taken place over the summer.  The go-to idea for last term seemed to be hit the ball up the park for Kris Boyd to win or bring down, and go from there.  With Boyd departing, it was easy to write Kilmarnock off especially considering the amount of goals he brought last term.  However, Allan Johnston and Gary Locke have built a very competent side who is capable of playing some excellent passing football at times.

Our main threat this season involves the much maligned Josh Magennis, who uses his considerable pace and strength to create space by dragging defenders here there and everywhere, allowing our pacy ‘support’ players like Rory McKenzie, Chris Johnston or Tope Obadeyi to push forward.  With the aforementioned Eremenko and the excellent Northern Irish international Sammy Clingan pulling the strings in midfield, Obadeyi and McKenzie’s runs will cause any side in the country trouble.  The perfect epitome of what we’re doing this season is shown in Obadeyi’s goal against Dundee United in a 2-0 win.  Magennis pulls the centre back out wide and wins the ball, Eremenko then shows a lovely bit of skill followed by a perfect pass which leads to Obadeyi’s lovely finish.

3.  A defender who can actually defend

Kilmarnock fans have had their fare share of heart stopping moments in recent years.  Defenders like Mo Sissoko, Michael Nelson, Martyn Corrigan and many others I’m too ashamed to list have come and gone, leaving large swathes of theKilmarnock support with serious cardio-vascular issues.  It could be seriously argued that we’ve not had a top-class defender since Freddie Dindeleux left the club in 2005.  All that looks to have changed though, thanks to the addition of Irishman Mark Connolly.  The quick thinking among you will remember a very young Connolly making one appearance for St Johnstone in 2010 on loan from Bolton.  His brief spell at the Perth Saints was best remembered for some pretty ill-advised comments about being desperate to hurt Rangers players to please his family and friends back home.

Mark Connelly, courtesy of Kenneth Ramsay

Connolly has spoken of that time openly since returning North, and admits that his childish attitude set his career back.  What Kilmarnock have now though, is a talented and committed centre-back, who looks the real deal.

We’ve all had players who are fired up for every game they take part in, but it takes a special sort to be fired up yet remain ice cool and that’s what Connolly brings.  Yes, he’s made the odd mistake, but if he didn’t then he wouldn’t be at Kilmarnock.  He rejected English Championship clubs in the summer to come back to Scotland to be closer to his partner whom he met during his St Johnstone spell, so we have a lot to thank that brief period for.  If Connolly can continue to be the ying to Manuel Pascali’s erratic yang then it will be hard for Miller/Daly/Boyd to get through too often.

Russell Abercrombie has been a frequent contributor to Rangers Report & you can follow him on Twitter @russabercrombie

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