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 passed at Braga’s spectacular Municipal Stadium carved into the side of a mountain, but the impact from the Rangers striker or his team-mates was not dramatic.
Chosen to lead the line in a Europa League quarter-final first leg, Sakala was replaced in a 1-0 defeat where the Scottish champions failed to even register a shot on target.
While Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side rallied in the second leg to progress to the final, the Ibrox striker has started just four more games this campaign, scoring just two goals. In the attacking pecking order, the Zambian international seemed to be down.
Fast forward nine months, and the former Ostend man is enjoying a renaissance under new manager Michael Beale, but can he propel Rangers to the Viaplay Cup final on Sunday?
Sakala feeling the rebound from Beale
Last Sunday at Tayside, Rangers were working the same way to create as they were on that Portuguese night. Scoreless at half-time against a Dundee United fighting for their lives, it took a moment of magic to revive Rangers and keep their faint hopes of a title chase alive. Up stepped up Sakala.
A searing run off the ball, a cushioned control of the ball with the right foot and a lethal volley with the left flew into United’s 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 start the move, play a one-two then run behind.
“But it’s about the skill he has here and the finishing. His touching with the right and finishing with the left at the pace he’s running is phenomenal. It’s a tough skill to run at this pace.
“They’ve all come over the last few weeks since Beale arrived. He’s been in great form. He’s a very influential player for Rangers at the moment. Beale looks like he can be trusted in a number of games and he hasn’t had that this season.”
The opener was perhaps only Sakala’s fourth goal this season, but three of them have come under Beale. He also had a hat-trick in assists, including winning an Old Firm derby penalty that has already become a GIF legend on Twitter given his celebration of the award. This only scratches the surface of his return to form under the Englishman.
This season, the 25-year-old has played the same number of games under Beale and Van Bronckhorst. His total shots went from 16 to 23, his touches in the box went from 39 to 44. As a result, his xG went from 1.10 to 2.62.
Bizarrely, he actually creates fewer chances, but the confidence now in his game has helped sharpen the man who joined Rangers for free in the summer of 2021.
How does it compare?
Sakala is not the only one to have seen his level of performance increase under the former manager of Queens Park Rangers. Ryan Kent, a lost soul under Van Bronckhorst, has woken up to show signs of the player he once was.
But in terms of forwards across the league, Sakala’s stats are stacking up nicely despite still not getting much playing time this campaign.
In the league he averages a goal every 95 minutes – only Kyogo Furuhashi, Liel Abada, Lawrence Shankland and Jota have a better rate – and only Giorgos Giakoumakis at Celtic averages more shots every 90 minutes with 5, 8 against 5.3 for Sakala.
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 numbers for someone who at the start of the campaign would have been a third-choice striker behind Alfredo Morelos and Antonio Colak.
“He’s the nicest man in football, Fashion,” Beale said. “The big smile, he’s happy to live. I think you have to meet fashion with the same energy, he’s a sparkling character.
“He always tries his socks on, he always gives you everything and if you can help him out with a tip or two – so I thought if you came back a few weeks ago to the old company, the first half he always tried hard, he presses, he tackles 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’s in good form because I think we’re doing our best to keep it there.
“Really, when we signed him a few years ago, we brought in a really fantastic young man and I think he maybe now realizes the potential he showed in Belgium before he came here.”