Why Steven Gerrard and Rangers can succeed where Jose Mourinho and Spurs failed

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HE threw on Son Heung-Min, Erik Lamela and Lucas Moura, three players who know a thing or two about staging a spirited second-half comeback away from home in Europe, at half-time.

And before an hour had elapsed he pitched England striker Harry Kane into the fray as well in an attempt to get his side, who had fallen behind to a Lior Refaelov goal in the opening 45 minutes, back on level terms.

But nothing that Jose Mourinho tried against Royal Antwerp at the Bosuilstadion back in October made any difference and Spurs still ended up losing the Europa League group game 1-0.  

The ability of the Belgians to successfully repel their Premier League opponents’ expensively-assembled front line in that Group J encounter shows just what a difficult task awaits Steven Gerrard and Rangers in Flanders tomorrow evening. 

Yet, there are reasons why Gerrard and the Glasgow club can succeed where Mourinho and his London outfit failed and take an early advantage in the last 32 double header.

For a start, Didier Lamkel Ze, the Antwerp striker, is suspended and Dieumerci Mbokani, their first choice centre forward, is also injured.

Lamkel Ze made headline news across Europe back in January when he turned up for training one morning decked out in the strip of their fierce rivals Anderlecht.

“It was an act to provocation, said Diederik Geypen, who covers the Flemish club for Gazet van Antwerpen. “He had been in the reserve team and wanted to put pressure on the club so he could leave. But the club told him ‘we decide who leaves the club, not you’.

“Lamkel Ze is crazy in everything he does. When he celebrates a goal he does it in a crazy way. He was a very popular player with the fans before. After the stunt with the Anderlecht shirt, though, many of them turned against him.”

However, the Cameroonian forward, who stands 6ft 7in in his stocking feet, is currently one of the form players in Belgium and will be badly missed by Antwerp.

Franky Vercauteren, the former Belgium winger who succeeded Ivan Leko as manager at the start of last month, promoted Lamkel Ze, who had issued a public apology for his madcap stunt, to his starting line-up after taking over. He hasn’t regretted his decision. 

“It is a most unusual situation,” said Geypen. “Since the turn of the year, he has been the most important Antwerp player. Mbokani got injured and Vercauteren brought Lamkel Ze into the first team.

“A lot of the Antwerp players didn’t accept the decision, but they couldn’t go against their coach. Now he has scored five times in six games.

“Lamkel Ze has a lot of qualities. He is very, very strong. He is big and powerful, but he has great technique to. He has every attribute the modern footballer needs.”

Not having Lamkel Ze and Mbokani is a blow for Vercauteren – but Jean Butez (goalkeeper), Alexis De Sart (midfielder) and Faris Haroun (midfielder) are all out as well and there are also doubts about Dylan Batubinsika (centre half) and Birger Verstraete (midfielder) too.

Geypen believes the loss of captain Haroun, the experienced defensive midfielder, in particular will be keenly felt by the home team when first leg kicks off tomorrow evening. 

“Haroun is a very important player,” he said. “He has played in the first team for four years now. His replacement changes every game. Sometimes it is Frank Boya, sometimes it is Birger Verstraete, who play next to Martin Hongla.”

Vercauteren has retained the same system as Leko, the Croatian coach who moved to China to take charge of Shanghai Port at the end of December, and Antwerp are set to line up with a 3-4-2-1 formation tomorrow.

However, they will not adopt the same attacking approach they took against Spurs when they play Rangers – and the visitors should have opportunities to score against their cautious hosts.  

“Leko’s teams played attractive football,” said Geypen. “They were very offensive and open. Vercauteren is more pragmatic. He plays a very defensive formation and doesn’t take a lot of risks. But he has been just as successful. Both managers have had good results.

“Vercauteren’s sides have always played that way. That is how his Anderlecht and Genk sides played. But they were both champions during his time with them. He was an attacking player, but as a coach he is pragmatic.

“He plays the same system as Leko. He didn’t want to change everything in the middle of the season. He plays with five defenders, or three at the back when they are attacking. But the wing backs stay in defence more than they did under Leko.”

He added: “Jordan Lukaku plays at left back. He isn’t as good as his brother Romelu (the Inter Milan and Belgium striker), but he has many qualities. A few years ago he was in the national side as well.

“He won a move to Lazio around that time. But he didn’t play a lot in Rome and he came back home last year. Joining Antwerp was a new beginning for him after a difficult spell.

“It is mostly Aurelio Buta who plays right back, but Koji Miyoshi has also played there. Antwerp play with one striker and two offensive midfielders, Lior Refaelov and Pieter Gerkens, in behind him.”

Antwerp’s playing style has proved very successful since football in Belgium restarted after the coronavirus lockdown last year.

“It has been a good season,” said Geypen. “It started with last season’s cup final. It was played in August and they beat Club Brugge, the Belgian champions, 1-0. It was a big moment for Antwerp.

“Then they finished in second place in their Europa League section. They had a difficult group with Tottenham Hotspur, LASK and Ludogorets Razgrad. They beat a very strong LASK side away to qualify for the knockout rounds.

“But the win over Spurs was their best game this season. They played at a very high level that evening. Spurs didn’t have any chances. 

“Now Antwerp are in second place in the league and have a good chance of being one of the four teams who go forward into the champions play-off.”

Rangers beat Standard Liege, who are sixth in the Belgian Pro League, 2-0 away from home back in October. Antwerp were held to a 1-1 draw in the Stade de Sclessin on Sunday. But Geypen reckons this double header is just too close to call.

“When Rangers played Standard I don’t think Standard were at their best,” he said. “It is difficult to say who will go through out of Rangers and Antwerp. I think it is 50-50.”

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