Philippe Clement dares to do what no Rangers manager has in recent memory and claim vindication - Hampden analysis

Big games require big calls. But on Scottish Cup judgement day, it was Philippe Clement who can claim vindication after a week of having his selections smarts questioned.

The big Belgian isn’t afraid to tinker with his team but he did something no other Rangers boss in recent memory has dared to as he dropped Connor Goldson. The Ibrox stalwart has been as close as you get to an ever present during six years in Scotland, starting all 312 of his Gers appearances while sitting out just 32.

Ten of those came last year when he was ruled out with a knee injury but other than that Goldson’s only time off has come when he’s been ordered to take a rest. Lately, though, he’s looked leggy, limp and frankly in desperate need of an extended break. Rested, dropped, call it what you want but Clement came to exactly the right conclusion when he opted to sit out the Englishman at Hampden.

Philippe Clement speaks with Cyriel Dessers -Credit:SNS Group
Philippe Clement speaks with Cyriel Dessers -Credit:SNS Group

Leon Balogun was brought back for this first start since early February and looked like he hadn’t missed a minute. The Nigerian international was tasked with filling Goldson’s boots, even slotting in as the right-sided centre-back despite being naturally left-footed. He was expected to be the voice at the back, the man winning the headers and throwing himself at shots.

He did all that and more. Goldson’s omission wasn’t the only eyebrow raiser as the team-sheets dropped. Steven Naismith threw in a surprise of his own as he stuck by cup keeper Craig Gordon.

Fair enough, the veteran has been promised the knock-out competition as he seeks to join Gorgie No1 Zander Clarke in the Scotland squad heading to Germany this summer. But starting the 41-year-old against Gers was still a major gamble with the Jambos’ last shot at silverware this term on the line.

It was just his fifth start since suffering that horrendous leg break in a collision with Dundee United’s Steven Fletcher in December 2022. His previous run outs against Spartans, Airdrie and Morton, plus a solitary Premiership appearance against a Livi side all but relegated, have been useful at dusting down the cobwebs. But this was the type of occasion upon which Steve Clarke could really judge Gordon’s readiness for Euros action. Whether the national team boss is any more the wiser remains to be seen.

Days like this hang on split-second calls. Unfortunately for Hearts, it was Rangers who had the clearer minds in the big moments.

The Light Blues have every reason to be satisfied with Steven McLean’s decisiveness early doors. It would have been easy for a trigger-happy official to reach for the whistle when Alan Forrest slid in on James Tavernier 25 yards from goal. But the ref got it spot on as he paused for a vital moment, allowing for play to develop and the ball to break for Todd Cantwell.

Todd Cantwell -Credit:SNS Group
Todd Cantwell -Credit:SNS Group

A neat pass put in Dessers and for once, the infuriatingly erratic frontman’s thinking was crystal clear. A chop to the left sent Nathaniel Atkinson sliding halfway down Aitkenhead Road before he finished off with a crisp finish to fully justify McLean’s use of the advantage.

Gordon had no chance with the goal and unfortunately for him, not much else to get involved with before Dessers again burst into the box. A brave stop from his first attempt showed the reactions are still there but presented with a second bite of the cherry, the Ibrox striker wasn’t going to miss.

It was a clarity of thinking Hearts lacked. They had their chances but when they broke to Kenneth Vargas, his brain was muddled.

Twice the Costa Rican burst clear of the Rangers backline but both times took the wrong option as those game-defining moments slipped away. Rangers now have one more final decision day with Celtic on May 25. Clement will have to hope his sound judgment holds.