Both teams should line up in a similar fashion this evening. Walter Smith has employed a lone striker system for most of the domestic campaign and with being short of options in attack will likely stick with something similar. The big question will be whether he decides to stick with the five-man defence of his Champions League campaign or else move towards something resembling 4-5-1.
One option would be to field Kyle Bartley in the holding midfield role, a position he took up against Motherwell recently, which would give him the option of switching between four and five at the back during the match – Bartley is naturally a centre-back. Should he chose to do this, Smith will be unlikely to field Jamie Ness alongside him, due to their lack of experience, and will likely opt for Maurice Edu and Steven Davis instead.
The other main decision for Smith is who to deploy as the lone striker. With the loss of Kenny Miller last month and Nikica Jelavic cup-tied, El Hadji Diouf would be the obvious choice to provide the necessary movement and link up required for the role, however, with Steven Naismith struggling with injury he may be forced to play Diouf wide and go with Kyle Lafferty up front.
Should Naismith not make it then Vladimir Weiss will likely replace him, although Smith also has the option of Diouf in attack with Davis and Weiss wide, bringing in Ness to the centre. Nonetheless, as mentioned before, this would leave a very young central three with an average age of less than twenty-one. Whoever is chosen to play on the left-hand side of the Rangers midfield will need to remain disciplined and aware of the attacking threat posed by Sporting’s Joao Pereira .
Sporting Lisbon head coach Paulo Sergio has experimented with various formations in the Europa League this season but has stuck with a 4-5-1-cum-4-3-3 for most of the domestic season. The loss of striker Liedson a fortnight ago to Brazilian side Corinthians means that Helder Postiga will lead the line but the main worry for Sporting will be who plays behind him. Simon Vukcevic has recently fallen out with his coach but may still find himself starting due to lack of options. Chilean winger Jaime Valdes is missing through injury so it will be a toss up between fellow countryman Matias Fernandez – a bit-part player this season – and Yannick Djalo, who has only recently returned from injury. Vukcevic is left-footed but will start on the right and cut inside whereas Fernandez, whose preferred position is that of an old-fashioned number ten, will likely drift inside.
This may allow Rangers full-back Steven Whittaker space in front of him that we know he can exploit. Whittaker is the more likely of the Rangers full-back to get forward and has shown a willingness and ability to get involved in attack. Just how much freedom Walter Smith is willing to allow him is another question.
Thus, it looks likely that both teams will line up similarly which means the outcome may come down to how attacking or defensive each side will be. For a start, first legs of European ties tend to be tight and cagey affairs. Add to this that Rangers are notoriously defensive in European competitions and the fact that Sporting have conceded five goals in their last two matches against lower-league opposition - a 3-3 and a 2-2 - and the smart money is on a match where either team will be unwilling to give too much away. In saying that, Rangers will be aware of their opponents’ poor defensive record recently and with being at home may break with tradition and attempt to take the game to Sporting.