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Steven Gerrard left to reshuffle Rangers pack for Spartak

By Andy Newport

Northern Ireland striker Kyle Lafferty is unlikely to make a swift return to the international set-up after he was ruled out of Rangers’ Europa League tie with Spartak Moscow tonight.

Lafferty shocked manager Michael O’Neill by withdrawing from the squad to face Bosnia and Austria last month at the last minute due to an injury he had failed to disclose to them earlier.

And now it looks like a return to the squad will have to wait even longer with the forward highly unlikely to be fit for the extended squad to face the Republic of Ireland and Austria next week, which is named by O’Neill today.

It means the suspense over whether Lafferty still has an international future will drag on into 2019, with Northern Ireland not in action again until after the New Year.

Lafferty’s unavailability comes on the back of Rangers suffering another injury blow ahead of their encounter with Spartak after Ryan Kent joined Lafferty on the sidelines.

On-loan Liverpool midfielder Kent has been ruled out with a hamstring injury and boss Steven Gerrard has added Scotland Under-17s striker Dapo Mebude to his squad ahead of Thursday’s game in Russia.

Gerrard said: “Ryan came off against St Mirren with a hamstring issue which we are looking into at the moment. Ryan won’t be available for us over here in Moscow and at Motherwell either.

“Obviously it’s an opportunity for someone else, certainly over the next couple of games, to come in and express themselves.

“Kyle has still got an issue in his quad muscle, so unfortunately he hasn’t made it here.”

Spartak also have their troubles, with supporter unrest hanging over the club.

Under-fire caretaker manager Raul Riancho pleaded with fans to lay off his players following their angry reaction to a fourth consecutive home league defeat on Sunday, and Gerrard hopes there is more discontent at the Otkritie Arena.

“We can only hope that the atmosphere is the same in the stadium because that would mean we are playing well and we’re doing our job,” said Gerrard, whose side lead the group with five points.

Gerrard also noted Riancho’s comments that his side will be more attacking after holding Rangers to a stalemate at Ibrox.

“Obviously I am aware of how the group stands at the moment and I don’t think a draw does Spartak any favours,” the Ibrox boss added.

“So I’m aware they have to go for the win. Whether they decide to go gung-ho or have a more patient approach, we’ll have to wait and see. But for me what’s important is what Rangers do and how we approach it and we make sure we carry our game plan out.”

Spartak Moscow caretaker manager Raul Riancho fears facing Rangers in front of their disgruntled home fans might be more difficult than playing at Ibrox.

Riancho accused supporters of wanting the “complete destruction” of the club and risking breaking the careers of the team’s younger players on Sunday.

The comments came after players felt the wrath of the fans even before they suffered a fourth consecutive home league defeat, losing 2-1 to Ural.

Supporters remain unhappy over the dismissal of Italian manager Massimo Carrera days before Spartak’s goalless draw in Glasgow last month and Riancho is feeling the brunt of their anger.

The 45,000-capacity Otkritie Arena is expected to be less than half full for Thursday’s Europa League encounter and the Spaniard is happy to take the criticism if it means the fans back his players.

Speaking through an interpreter at a media conference, Riancho said: “It will not be easy to play in such an atmosphere, but as long as Spartak are my employee, as long as they pay my wages, my primary task is to protect the players from outside influences which are sometimes negative.”

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