AS RANGERS sauntered past Annan in the Scottish Cup Saturday night, the return of Filip Helander was a ray of sunshine in somewhat biblical conditions.

The big Swede capped his long-awaited comeback from injury with the opening goal as he nodded home Aaron Ramsey’s corner. He came close to heading Rangers in front just moments earlier but his effort was cleared off the line.

Although not necessarily tested in a defensive sense, the mere presence of the former Cagliari man in the Rangers backline was enough to generate plenty of encouragement for the title run-in.

Helander’s Galabank showing was his first senior appearance since suffering a knee injury in the 2-1 win over St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park back in September and boy, have Rangers missed him.

Boss Giovanni van Bronckhorst said as much when speaking to Rangers TV following Saturday’s 3-0 victory: “I was able to give players minutes who needed it, players who didn’t play a lot but especially the players who came back from injury.

“Of course, Filip Helander after many months off, he could play his first minutes and scored a goal as well so really pleased for him.”

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It was van Bronckhorst’s first opportunity to witness Helander in competitive action since arriving at the club in late November and, despite the level of opposition, he would’ve been warmed with what he saw.

Leon Balogun and Calvin Bassey have deputised in the 28-year-old’s absence and have performed admirably albeit the trips to Pittodrie, Dingwall and Parkhead displayed a defensive fragility that you feel would’ve been offset had Helander been partnering Connor Goldson.

With Balogun plagued by his own injury issues of late and Bassey, at times looking understandably unsteady in an unfamiliar position at centre back, Helander’s return to the team comes at just the right time.

Personally speaking, he’s the best out-and-out defender at the club and, if fit, should be the first name on the teamsheet.

The reigning champions have some difficult fixtures to navigate in the coming weeks starting with a trip to Tannadice to face Tam Courts’ well organised Dundee United side.

Rangers came a cropper at the same venue at the start of the season so know just how testing a place it can be therefore it’s vital players such as Helander are available for selection.

Of course, the Swede doesn’t have to negotiate the two Europa League ties with Borussia Dortmund given he was omitted from the European squad by van Bronckhorst.

When quizzed as to why he was excluded, the Dutchman said: “It was a hard decision to leave him out of the European squad because we had only 23 players we could put on the list.

“At that time, I chose the players who were fit to play games and also players who can play in different roles.

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“Filip is really close to getting minutes again. Hopefully, we can involve him in the weekend so he starts playing and then will also be involved in the squad in the league and the cup competition.”

Realistically, Rangers will have to go some to progress past Dortmund therefore the decision to omit Helander from the ties may prove to be a smart move to keep him fresh for what looks set to be the closest run title-race in 11 years.

To use the overused footballing cliché, Helander’s return from injury is like a new signing.

He was a major contributing factor to Rangers’ invincible campaign last year with his calmness and ability to read the game pivotal to the record number of clean sheets racked up.

If he can remain fit, he’s likely to have a big say as to where the Premiership trophy is held aloft come May.