THE Premiership hope that flickered for so long has now been extinguished. The title dreams are over for another season for Rangers.
Defeat to Celtic on Saturday confirmed what had been evident for some time and the silverware will remain at Parkhead. The challenge from Rangers has been as meek as their defence of the title last term and the end of another unsuccessful league campaign cannot now come quick enough for supporters.
The final seven Premiership encounters can still be useful to Michael Beale, however. And the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden is a potentially defining fixture that will determine how this season is remembered on both sides of the Old Firm divide and go some way to shaping the narrative heading into a summer of revolution at Ibrox and evolution at Parkhead.
Rangers have a maximum of nine games left to play this term. Here is what Beale must achieve and learn from them as his first season as manager draws to a close.
LIFT THE SCOTTISH CUP
This is the non-negotiable for Rangers and for Beale. The significance of the Old Firm showdown at Hampden simply cannot be underestimated or understated and Rangers know that another derby defeat will all but gift wrap a domestic clean sweep for Celtic.
This is the final before the final. Falkirk or Inverness Caledonian Thistle will still have to be overcome before the trophy is presented but whoever emerges victorious in a fortnight will believe that their name is already engraved on the Scottish Cup.
This competition provided a silver lining for Rangers last term as Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side recovered from the self inflicted blow of squandering the Premiership and the heartache of Seville to end the long wait for Scottish Cup success.
It would prove to be a false dawn for the Dutchman but Beale needs something to show for his efforts six months after replacing Van Bronckhorst at Ibrox and being tasked with salvaging a season that had spiralled out of control at home and abroad. Beale, helpless in the Premiership, had to shoulder much of the blame for the defeat in the League Cup final and can now ill-afford another Hampden no show.
His reign has been impressive overall and there are clear positives to point to heading into his summer rebuild and first full term in charge. Now he needs a medal to back it up as a squad that haven’t won anywhere near enough in recent seasons prepare for one last shot at glory together.
WIN THE IBROX OLD FIRM
A record of no wins from three against Celtic doesn’t make for encouraging reading for Beale. If he could choose one of the remaining two to emerge victorious from, it is obvious that the semi-final would be the pick.
That doesn’t render the final league meeting of the season meaningless, though. Rangers have fixtures at home to St Mirren and away to Aberdeen before the top flight split and the schedule for the final five matches, including that clash with Celtic, has still to be revealed.
Rangers should have few problems negotiating four of those outings. Indeed, the way in which they have been able to take care of business in that regard has been one of the most encouraging aspects of Beale’s reign and the wins away at Pittodrie, Tynecastle and Easter Road stand out on his record so far.
Until the trip across the city at the weekend, Rangers had matched Celtic stride for stride in the Premiership as the gap remained at the nine points that it was when Beale was appointed in December. If it could be reduced to that level once again, it would be a positive, of sorts, and that is why the last of six derbies this term cannot be discounted.
The record in the Old Firm fixtures must improve next term if Rangers are going to sustain a challenge and stake their claim to be champions. A win at Ibrox would be a small step in the right direction.
DECIDE WHO STAYS AND WHO GOES
There is not a topic that Beale has been asked about more over the last five months than transfers – both in and out – and those discussions, which reached a crescendo during the January transfer window, will be ramped up once again as the summer approaches.
Whether it is classed as a refresh or rebuild is ultimately irrelevant. Rangers need quality and quantity and the Ibrox board must find a way of providing Beale with the funds required to put his stamp on a squad that will look very different come the return to pre-season in early July.
The situations regarding Ryan Kent and Alfredo Morelos have dominated the agenda for so long and supporters will be relieved when resolutions are found and made public. There are others – such as Allan McGregor, Ryan Jack, Steven Davis and Scott Arfield – who have also yet to have their futures confirmed as the debates continue over whether they should be part of the plans going forward.
There are also calls to be made on a handful of squad players. Can, for example, Kemar Roofe finally be relied upon give his injury record and what does the future hold for the likes of Jon McLaughlin, Filip Helander and Rabbi Matondo? In terms of assets, now is surely the time to cash in on Glen Kamara.
Beale has expressed his belief that Rangers will be a rejuvenated outfit come the end of his second transfer window. The acquisitions of Nicolas Raskin and Todd Cantwell have started the process and it will now be ramped up as Beale wheels and deals.
A CHANCE TO EXPERIMENT
The title may be gone but the requirement to perform and to win remains for Rangers and Beale’s side cannot cruise towards the end of the campaign and let their standards slip before the summer break. The Englishman does, after all, need momentum to be maintained heading into the final stages of what has been a bruising campaign for supporters.
Beale has stuck to a familiar blueprint for most of his reign. Once the treatment room cleared, a largely settled side was picked and confidence levels steadily started to rise.
Beale will not rip it up and start again for the post-split fixtures. They do, though, give him a chance to work on different approaches and the time on the grass will be put to good use as the preparations for pre-season are finalised and Beale moulds a squad and side in his image.
A plan to play two strikers has been muted on several occasions and tried a couple of times. There is also a feeling that a three at the back formation, which was last seen during the closing stages of the win at Motherwell, could be a useful approach for Rangers going forward.
Beale has shown his flexibility as a coach and a manager throughout his two spells at Ibrox and the quality of his work on the training park is often spoken about in glowing terms. The coming weeks offer a chance for his theories to be put into practice in the Premiership as Rangers develop an unpredictability to their play.
GIVE KIDS A CHANCE
The opportunity to tinker with the team does not just apply to the formation that Beale opts for. The coming weeks are a time for Beale to mix and match his selections too.
The likes of Ridvan Yilmaz and John Souttar need match minutes under their belts following their respective injury issues this term. Robby McCrorie should get a run as well.
There will be a younger, fresher look about Rangers next term as Beale embarks on his rebuild and recruits heavily. That process should involve the best products of the Academy.
This should have been the campaign that Alex Lowry really established himself at first team level. For a variety of reasons, that hasn’t happened and he now finds himself at a crossroads in his career.
For Leon King, it has been a season of mixed emotions. He can be proud of his efforts in difficult circumstances during Van Bronckhorst’s reign and the Champions League experience will stand him in good stead going forward.
He has not kicked a ball for Beale, though. If he cannot feature in the final seven league outings, it perhaps points to him heading out on loan next term to take the required steps in his career.
Adam Devine would benefit from a run of matches as he seeks to prove he can be a reliable back-up for James Tavernier next term and the likes of Bailey Rice, Robbie Ure and Zak Lovelace will all be eyeing action after making their debuts earlier in the campaign.