|Venue: Hampden Park, Glasgow At your place: Sunday, 15 January Kick-off: 5pm GMT|
|Coverages: Listen to live commentary on BBC Radio Scotland; live text commentary on the BBC Sport website & app|
Somewhere in the Portuguese hills last April, the sun set on the horizon and on a dismal night for Fashion Sakala.
Just over an hour had gone at the dramatic Municipal Stadium in Braga carved into the side of a mountain, yet there was little drama about the impact of the Rangers forward or his team-mates.
Chosen to lead the line in a Europa League quarter-final first leg, Sakala was substituted in a 1-0 defeat where the Scottish champions failed to even register a shot on target.
While Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s team rallied in the second leg to go on a run to the final, the Ibrox forward would only start a further four games that campaign, scoring just two goals. In the pecking order of strikers, the Zambia international seemed some way down.
Fast forward nine months, and the former Oostende man is enjoying a renaissance under new manager Michael Beale, but can he rocket Rangers to the Viaplay Cup final on Sunday?
Sakala feeling the Beale bounce
Last Sunday on Tayside, Rangers were similarly toiling to create as they were on that Portuguese night. Goalless at half-time against a Dundee United fighting for their lives, a moment of magic was needed to revive Rangers and keep their faint hopes of a title chase alive. Up stepped Sakala.
A blistering off-the-ball run, a cushioned control of the ball with the right foot, and a lethal swipe of a volley with the left flew into the United net. Three minutes later, Malik Tillman added a second to seal the deal.
“It’s great from Sakala,” said former Rangers goalkeeper Cammy Bell. “You see him starting the move, he plays a one-two then runs in behind.
“But it’s about the skill he has here and the finish. His touch with the right and the finish with the left at the pace he’s running at is phenomenal. That’s a difficult skill running at that pace.
“They’ve all come in the last few weeks since Beale came in. He’s been in great form. He’s a really influential player for Rangers at the moment. Beale looks like he can trust him in a number of games and he’s not had that this season.”
The opener may have just been Sakala’s fourth goal of the season, but three of them have come under Beale. He’s also got a hat-trick of assists, including winning an Old Firm derby penalty that has already become a thing of GIF legend on Twitter given his celebration of him at the award. That’s just brushing the surface of his upturn in form under the Englishman.
This term, the 25-year-old has played the same number of games under both Beale and Van Bronckhorst. His total shots has gone up from 16 to 23, his touches in the box have increased from 39 to 44. As a result, his xG has rocketed to 2.62 from 1.10.
Bizarrely, he’s actually creating less chances, but the confidence now in his game has helped sharpen the man who joined Rangers on a free in the summer of 2021.
How does he appear?
Sakala isn’t the only one who has seen a lift in performance level under the former Queens Park Rangers manager. Ryan Kent, a lost soul under Van Bronckhorst, has roused himself to show signs of the player he once was.
But in terms of attackers across the league, Sakala’s stats stack up well despite still not having much game time this campaign.
In the league, he’s averaging a goal every 95 minutes – only Kyogo Furuhashi, Liel Abada, Lawrence Shankland and Jota have a better rate – and just Giorgos Giakoumakis at Celtic averages more shots per 90 minutes with 5.8 to Sakala’s 5.3.
And to add to that, the Rangers man has averaged 11.3 touches in the opposition box per game, the highest in the top flight. Impressive figures for someone who at the start of the campaign would have been a third-choice striker behind Alfredo Morelos and Antonio Colak.
“He is the nicest man in football, Fashion,” said Beale. “The big smile, he is happy with life. I think you have to meet Fashion with the same energy, he is a bubbly character.
“He always tries his socks off, he always gives you everything and if you can help him with one or two bits of advice – so I thought if you go back a couple of weeks ago in the Old Firm, first half he tried ever so hard, he’s pressing, he’s tackling but not so much in possession.
“In the second half, he was a completely different player and he had a similar performance at Dundee United as well. It was a fantastic goal and at the moment he is in good form because I think we do our best to keep him there.
“Genuinely, when we recruited him a couple of years ago, we recruited a really fantastic young man and I think he is now fulfilling maybe the potential he showed in Belgium before coming here.”