Niko Kranjcar was back with a bang in Rangers’ 1-0 win over Progrès Niederkorn.
His quick thinking in taking a free-kick before the side from Luxembourg had set themselves up allowed Kenny Miller the space to fire home. It was a goal that proved the difference between the two sides in the Europa League qualifier on Thursday.
The Croatian could have opened the scoring earlier in the contest but fired over after being found in the area. However, his performance whetted the appetite for the season ahead.
Speaking after the game, Rangers boss Pedro Caixinha singled Kranjcar out for praise.
He said: “He (Kranjcar) is a fantastic player, a playmaker, he’s someone that understands the game.
“With some freshness in the legs and some freshness in his decisions, we were producing some fantastic football.
“He knows how to play between lines, how to make the last pass, his delivery on set-pieces were great. So he needs to keep playing to get the rhythm.”
And the Portuguese boss wasn’t the only man involved in Rangers who hailed the midfielder.
Former chairman Alastair Johnston, who returned to the board earlier this month, said: “The legs may not be there but 60 minutes of that is great.”
A tough start
There’s no doubt Kranjcar will have appreciated the widespread positive comments about his game on Thursday night.
His career at Rangers didn't exactly go to plan after he joined the club last summer.
He arrived in with big expectations. “I hope the goal is to win the league,” he said almost 12 months ago.
“I believe a club the size of Rangers, whatever situation it is in or was in the previous years, has to fight to win the league and to win it.
“That is something you want to achieve when you come to a club the size of Rangers, you want to win the league and you want to fight for every title.”
Kranjcar hoped to playing regularly again on his return to the United Kingdom. He'd left Queens Park Rangers in 2015 and found himself playing in America with New York Cosmos. The SPL would prove a harder challenge.
But after 15 games in all competitions, in which he scored three goals, the Croat suffered a cruciate ligament in early October.
There was a real chance Rangers fans would never see Kranjcar at his best as it was potentially career-ending.
Instead it only ruled him out for the rest of the season. So there will have been plenty of joy at seeing him make such a successful return on Thursday.
Hopes for the future
While Kranjcar may have epitomised everything that went wrong last season for Rangers – in that there were high expectations which weren't fulfilled – he is also a symbol of a fresh start under Caixinha.
“I always felt a part of it last season, I did all my rehab here and I was involved in, unfortunately, a really bad season for us,” he told RangersTV last month.
“It is a new season and a new start, not only for me but for the football club, because we cannot allow anything similar to happen as did last season.
“It’s up to me to prove to my teammates and my manager that I am still good enough to play.”
And Kranjcar did more than that. His performance proved he’s still got it, even if, as Johnston says, his legs have gone.
Caixinha clearly appreciates Kranjcar's ability and pledged to build his team around the 32-year-old back in May.
The Rangers boss said: “I like pedigree players. Niko can be a key player for Rangers.
“He’s going to be like a new player too. He has quality, experience, understanding and leadership.
“He’s the type of player the team can be controlled by regarding the pace of the game, the tempo of the game and the style of football we want to perform.
“It fits totally with him. I like the higher pace and higher rhythm taking place here but I like to control the rhythm. We can’t play all the time at a high tempo.
“It’s important to have players who understand the game and how to perform that way in your squad. Niko is definitely one of those type of players.
“It’s a bonus that he’s already here, he knows us, we know him. We know what we want from each other.”
Kranjcar has undoubted quality and at 32, there’s no reason he can’t impress.
If Rangers manage to build around the former Tottenham Hotspur star, his technical ability could be the difference between last and this season.
There’s a reason Harry Redknapp likes to take Kranjcar with him to every club, in the right environment he usually shines.
And while he physically may not be the player he once was, he’s eager to show he wasn’t a bad signing. That desire is crucial, if not as more important as his undoubted skill.