THEY are the defining dozen. The next seven weeks – and the 12 games within that timeframe – will shape Rangers, both on and off the park, for years to come.

The significance of this next tranche of fixtures cannot be underestimated as Rangers aim to progress in the Premier Sports Cup and Europa League and lay down a marker of their intentions in the title race.

The short-term issue is, of course, who will lead the side into action. It will not be Steven Gerrard, so the Ibrox hierarchy must have a plan in place that will ensure minimum disruption heading into a crucial spell that starts against Hibernian at Hampden a week on Sunday.

Given their wretched record in cup competitions for so long, and for too long, the League Cup takes on extra significance for Rangers this term. On the continent, meanwhile, anything other than a place in the last 16 would have to be seen as regression and failure.

The meeting with Sparta Prague, therefore, is a massive 90 minutes and Rangers can ill-afford the reputational or financial setback that an early exit from the competition would bring.

A trip to Lyon will be inconsequential if the Czechs can be overcome, but that tag cannot be put on any of their upcoming Premiership fixtures. It is a run, of course, which ends at Parkhead before the winter break.

Trips to Livingston, Hibernian, Hearts and Aberdeen will be acid tests of Rangers’ title credentials and there are questions for the champions to answer after an at times lacklustre start to their Premiership defence.

An Ibrox slip-up against Dundee, St Johnstone, Dundee United or St Mirren is almost unthinkable as Rangers seek to build some momentum heading in the Old Firm derby and prove that they are still superior to Ange Postecoglou’s challengers.

If Rangers can get to January relatively unscathed, it will give them a chance to regroup, and perhaps a new boss an opportunity to tinker with the squad to ensure the champions can get over the line come the end of the campaign.

The managerial situation dominates the agenda and shapes the thinking, but it does not alter the consequences of failure – in both sporting and financial senses – for Rangers this season.

The Ibrox board and sporting director Ross Wilson must act swiftly and decisively and any delay, or even worse a wrong decision, could come with catastrophic consequences. The next fortnight is as important as any spell in Rangers’ recent history.

Cup silverware and an extended run on the continent would be most welcomed in the weeks that follow, but the Premiership is non-negotiable this term. Quite simply, 55 must become 56 come May.

When Gerrard guided his side to their first title in a decade last term, Rangers had a chance to build from a position of strength. The champions haven’t regressed in the months since, but the steps forward have not been taken at the pace that Gerrard or supporters wished.

The financial report for RIFC plc published last Friday goes some way to explaining why and it was unrealistic to expect the Ibrox board to sanction a raft of multi-million pound signings whilst battling with the impact of Covid and relying on director investment once again.

Losses of £23.5million for the last financial year can be partly put down to the damage inflicted by the pandemic, but the reason is ultimately immaterial. Rangers cannot spend what they cannot bring in from various sources.

From such a high, from such a standing, back in May, it looked almost inconceivable that Rangers could find themselves firmly on the back foot next term.

That is the reality the champions are facing, though, if the coming months do not go to plan and their reign ends with just the one title added to their roll of honour.

Last season was all about 55 and ten-in-a-row and the importance of achieving one ambition and stopping another was clear. It was also overplayed to an extent.

Rangers and Celtic want to win every title. This one must be secured, however, and the pressure and the demands have ratcheted up as a result.

The financial implications of Champions League football are transformative for clubs at the level of the Old Firm and whoever fails to land the Premiership will be dealt a major blow before a ball is kicked next season.

Rangers are – regardless of who the manager is – bracing themselves for a summer of wheeling and dealing at the end of the campaign as the cycle of this squad comes to an end.

That rebuild cannot be funded to the required level on a Europa League budget and the market value of many of their key assets will have diminished by that stage as well.

The current investor corps cannot be expected, and nor should they be, to stump up and settle the bill and Rangers will find themselves shopping in two very different pools depending on their fortunes in the coming months.

Gerrard voiced his frustration over Rangers’ transfer strategy after the defeat to Sparta Prague and that situation will only be exacerbated if a Champions League cheque doesn’t land next term.

The timing of Gerrard’s impending exit could not be worse for Rangers, but it is now about how the board and the squad react in the face of adversity. Momentum has not yet been lost, and the title cannot be surrendered.

Failure doesn’t just handicap Rangers for a new season or make the job more difficult for a new manager, it has a profound impact on their spending ability for the coming campaigns and the power balance that flipped with 55 will swing back in Celtic’s favour if that league crown isn’t held onto this term.

The run between now and New Year is of upmost importance and it will shape Rangers’ aspirations beyond the second half of a campaign that promised much and could still deliver the goals required.

It still has to. Failure in the here and now is not an option for Rangers if the future is to be bright at Ibrox.