By: Lewis Irons
Saturday’s Betfred Cup clash with Rangers marks the start of the competitive season at Fir Park.
It is also the first time the two sides have met since the ‘Well maintained their Premiership status intact thanks to a 6-1 aggregate victory over the Ibrox side.
The new format will take some getting used to for club sides across the country, with competitive football arriving three weeks before the Ladbrokes Premiership gets underway.
And with both Motherwell and Saturdays opponents Rangers boasting a number of new signings, the race to find a settled starting eleven could be the key to success in the opening cup match in Group F.
Normally, pre-season friendlies would allow for more time to experiment and make adjustments, but the Steelmen will need to be at their best tomorrow as they face a dangerous Rangers side.
[pullquote]It’s a competitive game and I think we’ve got our heads around that, so it won’t feel like a pre-season game for us and I’m sure it won’t for Rangers either. – Mark McGhee[/pullquote]
New signings Richard Tait, Ben Heneghan, Jacob Blyth, Dean Brill and Carl McHugh have impressed manager Mark McGhee since their arrivals, but the five players haven’t featured in the same line-up for more than 45 minutes.
Following Sundays defeat to Hibs, the manager took the time to iron out the creases in training this week and insists his side are well prepared.
Despite the reverse at Easter Road, McGhee has spoke of his frame of mind being a lot better going in to the Rangers game, having addressed the issues he had with the performance five days ago.
He said: “We’ve had a look at it again and we’ve dug in to see what was going on and we’ve discovered that there was a lot going on that wasn’t the way that we normally do things – both as individuals and as a group, defensively in particular.
“But there were things that when we saw it we thought, actually this isn’t too difficult to fix.
“There were some fundamental things that we do as a group and we did last season that made us very difficult to beat at times, gave us a chance of winning games, and those things weren’t in place on Sunday.
He added: “But we hope to have corrected those mistakes and be a lot, lot better on Saturday.”
New signing Carl McHugh turned a few heads, while breaking some hearts of the loyal Plymouth fans, when he made the switch to Fir Park.
But the 23-year-old midfielder, who understands that reaction after leaving a club he enjoyed an extremely successful two-years with, is focussed firmly on his performances on the pitch.
The Irishman penned a two-year deal with the Steelmen and believes facing a club like Rangers is something to be relished, now that he is with a top-flight team in Scotland.
The combative number eight said: “Obviously it’ll be great to test yourself against teams like Rangers. They’ll be very strong and you’d expect them to be right up there this season when you look at some of the signings they’ve made, so it’s a great test for us.”
But McHugh added: “It’s very early in season the league doesn’t start for a few more weeks and that’s the main priority; being ready for the league. But it’s a massive game for us and it will give us a good yardstick of where we are.
[pullquote]We’re all looking forward to it; it’s a massive game. It’s a little bit different from pre-season friendlies that you’d normally be playing at this time of year.”[/pullquote]
Likely up against Rangers new signing Joey Barton, McHugh’s work-rate, bite and array of passing will be key for Mark McGhee, who has been pleased with his midfielder so far.
He said: “In midfield, Carl’s arrival from Plymouth boosts our squad significantly. Our midfield was lacking depth after a few key players departed last season, but in McHugh we have a solid, confident midfielder who is only 23-years-old.”
‘Well fans will be in for an exciting two years with McHugh in the middle of the park, as McGhee and his squad look to build on last years successes.
Gers boss Mark Warburton has gained his fair share of plaudits over the past year after guiding the Ibrox club to the Championship title, the Petrofac Cup and a place in the final of the Scottish Cup in his first season at the helm.
This Rangers side is a different challenge from the one that faced the Steelmen in the Premiership play-off in May 2015; a side that are ranked by some bookmakers, including Betfred(!), as second favourites to lift the league trophy this season.
Under the Londoner, Rangers have a 70% win rate, having slumped to defeat on only seven occasions last season.
But perhaps more importantly to their fans, the club are playing an expansive brand of football under Warburton, overcoming Premiership sides St Johnstone, Dundee and Celtic en route to the Scottish Cup final.
Over the summer, the Glaswegians have strengthened their squad significantly, adding the likes of Niko Kranjcar, Josh Windass and Clint Hill to their books.
It was the addition of Joey Barton that quickened the pulse rates of the Gers fans the most though – after the midfielder swapped the English Championship winners Burnley for the Scottish Championship winners on a free transfer.
Barton scored three goals and registered two assists as Sean Dyche’s side won the league, and the 33-year-old was named in the team of the year.
As well as making a number on new additions, one of the major plus points for the Gers over the summer has been the fact they have managed to hold on to the majority of their star performers from the 2015/16 campaign.
With Gedion Zelalem returning to Arsenal, Nicky Clark departing for Bury and former ‘Well man Nicky Law moving to Bradford among the main losses, Warburton’s squad didn’t take a big knock after all of its successes.
Going in to the new season, the Gers look well prepared, adding depth, experience and youth to an already big squad.
This season has seen a rather quiet start for the Light Blues though, with just a single match played in pre-season – a trip to South Carolina to face Charleston Battery. Warburton’s side won 2-1 thanks to goals from Josh Windass and Harry Forrester.