PLAYING for Feyenoord, one of the biggest, best-supported and most successful clubs in the Netherlands, against the likes of Ajax and PSV Eindhoven in the ultra-competitive Eredivisie for two-and-a-half years prepared Thomas Buffel for the demands of representing Rangers.
Coming on for the Rotterdam giants in the European Super Cup final against Real Madrid, Roberto Carlos, Luis Figo, Raul, Zindedine Zidane et al, in 2002 also meant that he was far from overawed when he moved to Glasgow.
The Belgian internationalist made an immediate impact in Scotland after arriving midway through the 2004/05 season in a £2.3m transfer; he helped the Ibrox outfit to do a double within a matter of months.
The attacking midfielder featured in the 5-1 rout of Motherwell in the League Cup final at Hampden in March and then played in the 1-0 triumph over Hibernian at Easter Road at May that clinched the Premier League in dramatic circumstances on the final day.
Can Fashion Sakala, the Zambian striker who Rangers announced on Tuesday will join them in the summer, make the same sort of early impression as Buffel?
The 24-year-old has been playing in the Belgian Pro League with KV Oostende, whose stadium has a capacity of just 8,400, for the past three years. Before that, he turned out for Spartak-2 Moscow in the second tier of the Russian game. He began his career with Nchanga Rangers and Zanaca in his homeland.
It is asking a lot of the Sakala to come to Scotland, establish himself as a starter in Steven Gerrard’s side in the 2021/22 campaign, ensure they qualify for the Champions League group stages, defend their Premiership title and vie for the Betfred Cup and Scottish Cup.
If Alfredo Morelos leaves, and it will be no surprise if the Colombian forward departs for a sizeable fee in the coming months after four eventful years here, he will have to fill the boots of Rangers’ all-time leading European goalscorer and a huge fans favourite. No pressure!
Buffel, though, is quite confident that Sakala can thrive. He has watched the African in action closely during the past few seasons and can understand why he has caught the attention of Ibrox sporting director Ross Wilson and his recruitment team. He believes their new signing has the ability, mentality and versatility required to do well.
The 40-year-old is now the assistant manager at Cercle Brugge. They faced Oostende in their final league match away in the Diaz Arena last month. Sakala came off the bench at half-time and played a key role as the home team came back from 1-0 down and earned a 1-1 draw with an injury-time goal.
Speaking from the French Riviera – Brugge are owned by AS Monaco and Buffel and head coach Yves Vanderhaeghe have travelled to the principality to spend time at the Ligue 1 giants following the end of their season – he predicted the forward will do well in Glasgow both domestically and on the continent.
“I know Fashion Sakala very well,” he said. “I have seen him play for Oostende many times and Cercle Brugge played against them last month. He is a good player. He is physically strong, very fast and also an adept footballer.
“He can both use the ball well when he is in possession and he can score goals as well. I think he will be a good signing for Rangers and can appreciate why they have worked so hard to add him to their squad for next season.”
Buffel left Rangers 13 years ago and finished his professional career in Belgium with Cercle Brugge, Genk and Zulte Waregem. But he still takes an interest in how the Ibrox club are performing. He was impressed when he saw them play Standard Liege and Royal Antwerp in the Europa League last season.
He anticipates that Sakala will have few difficulties slotting into the 4-3-3 formation that former Liverpool and England midfielder Gerrard usually uses. In fact, he knows the forward will be able to fit into a number of different positions in his starting line-up. He can play as a No10 and as an out-and-out striker.
Morelos was often asked to drop deep, win the ball and contribute to the build-up play after Kemar Roofe was signed from Anderlecht last summer and he did so effectively at home and abroad. If the South American is sold then the new acquisition will be able to do exactly the same.
“I have watched Rangers on quite a few occasions since Steven Gerrard has taken over as manager and have always been struck by how well he has the team set up,” he said. “Everybody knows their jobs and the unit functions well. Players can come in and out of the side without performance levels dropping.
“They have some outstanding individual players in every area of the team and have a good balance of experienced individuals and exciting youngsters. I think Sakala will fit into the side very well.
“He has played in a number of systems for Oostende. Sometimes he comes in from wide on the left or the right as a No10 and sometimes he plays as a second striker. He is an adaptable player and is equally effective in both roles. It is always good for a coach to have players like that.
“Oostende have mainly played with a 3-4-1-2 formation and that is how they lined up when we played them last month. Sakala plays as one of their strikers alongside either Marko Kvasina or Makhtar Gueye. But they have also played with a 4-1-2-2-1 and a 4-2-3-1 and Sakala has played on the left wth Gueye as the lone striker. As I say, he is adaptable.
“Oostende have also played with a 4-3-3 at times this season so he will have no difficulties getting to grips with the system that Rangers play. He has played as the striker within that, but he could also play as one of the No10s. He is a fast player who is effective on the transition.”
Buffel certainly knows a good striker when he sees one. He played alongside Shota Arveladze, Kris Boyd, Franny Jeffers, Nacho Novo, Dado Prso and Steven Thompson during the time that he spent playing his trade in this country.
The 36-times capped playmaker also counted Christian Benteke and Romelu Lukaku as team mates during an international career that spanned 11 years. He is, then, not easily impressed. But he likes what he sees in Sakala and is looking forward to seeing how he fares at Rangers.