Up until the winter break, it was all going so well. Significant strides had been made by Steven Gerrard in his second season of management, and the gap between Rangers and Celtic was narrowing. After their first win at Celtic Park for nine years, just two points separated the sides.
That was in late December, little over two months ago, when everything had seemed so rosy. With the exception of an unfortunate 1-0 defeat in the Scottish League Cup final, where Rangers failed to capitalise on a red card for Jeremie Frimpong and were repeatedly denied by an inspired Fraser Forster, they were in excellent form on all fronts.
Through to the knockout stages of the Europa League, having started off in the qualifying rounds all the way back in July, Rangers had also rattled through the first half of the Scottish Premiership season impressively, winning all but three games. Yet somehow, since returning to action midway through January, their title challenge has fallen apart.
They have dropped points in four of their last seven league matches, including away defeats to Hearts and Kilmarnock. Where goals had once flowed freely, they are now proving much harder to come by. Alfredo Morelos’ collapse in form is a big factor in that decline. He has scored just once in eight appearances since the turn of the year.
Morelos has long been Rangers’ talisman – the source of so much excitement but also frustration. His poor disciplinary record is well-documented, and although it briefly looked like he was bringing his temper under control, he has still picked up two red cards. There are also concerns that being linked with a move to the Premier League during the January transfer window caused him to lose focus at a key moment.
He was left out of Gerrard’s last squad having failed to return from Colombia on time, causing him to miss a training session. Jermain Defoe would ordinarily take up the slack in this situation, but he’s been absent with a calf injury recently, putting more emphasis on Florian Kamberi and Greg Stewart, who are not of the same quality.
The latter started against Hearts on Saturday as Rangers succumbed to a shock defeat in the quarter final of the Scottish Cup. That result means that, barring a miracle in the Europa League, it looks like being another trophyless season for the club.
In the wake of that loss, a second at Tynecastle in recent weeks, doubts surfaced about Gerrard’s future. He has tended to been tetchy in post-match interviews and critical of his team’s performances. Someone who set such high standards as a player, he has struggled to adjust his expectations accordingly.
Even so, Rangers have been poor. Their usual vibrancy and cutting edge in attack has been lost, while costly errors have crept in at the back. A poor header from James Tavernier and indecision from Allan McGregor conspired to give Hearts the only goal of the game through Oliver Bozanic in their last outing.
Gerrard was bitterly disappointed in the aftermath, once more raising concerns about the mentality of his team. “I just need to think. I am feeling pain right now because I want to win here, I am desperate to win here. Looking from the side today, I didn't get the impression that the feeling amongst my players was the same,” he said in a press conference after the game.
"I am not doubting myself. We have given these players everything. Me and my staff have given these players absolutely everything for 20 months, held their hand on and off the pitch and improved everything for them. But it is tough when every other performance you feel the way you feel. It is tough. I need to analyse myself, for sure. This is the toughest moment I have had since I have come here.”
This mood of sombre reflection was particularly striking after the jubilant celebrations of three days previously, as Rangers won away at Braga to progress to the last 16 of the Europa League. They have relished being the underdog, battling against the odds to pick up positive results, whereas that same steely resolve has been lacking in domestic games, which they routinely go into as heavy favourites. Perhaps the pressure is too much.
Trying to allay such fears the Rangers boss spork to the media again on Tuesday and said: "Saturday was a low and I won't deny that. I will always be honest. I am all in. I signed up to something here and I knew there would be real setbacks. We are always going to be challenged here. My job is to find solutions that give us long-term success.
"If you want to survive at this level you have to bounce back. I have to identify why we go from Braga's performance to 72 hours later not doing justice - but that is an exciting challenge for me. I don't fear that challenge."
And that challenge continues on Wednesday night at home to Hamilton, an ideal chance to rediscover their rhythm. They have already beaten the lowly Accies three times this season, scoring 13 goals in the process. However, with ten games to go and Celtic streaking clear, notching up a fourth is unlikely to make any difference.