There will never be a clearer example of absence making the heart grow fonder than that provided by the 51,000 capacity crowd at Ibrox tonight. For one game against Luxembourg part-timers, the Govan ground will house as many supporters as witnessed the previous two European games at the arena.
Of course, the allure of a Europa League first round qualifier has been ramped up because continental competition was last hosted at Ibrox six years ago. Then, the competitive summer opener was a Champions League third round qualifier against Malmo, which 28,000 attended, before 32,000 watched the Europa League qualifier with Maribor. Ally McCoist’s side were eliminated from both competitions.
On both of these occasions, had the ties been successfully negotiated, then European group stage football would have loomed large. Now, while many aspects of the post- liquidation Rangers begin to attain familiarity, the journey the club will set on tonight does not.
Selling out the stadium days before such an encounter recalls the past, but hopes of a long run in Europe could be forlorn. The idea that Pedro Caixinha could take a team currently in a state of flux through four ties to the group stage – three of them as an unseed team – seems fanciful. Only two of 98 clubs achieved that last season, though not one first round qualifier could command a home support of 50,000. It is that juxtaposition which gives Caixinha hope.
The sell-out signs indicate to the Portuguese coach “something where you really need to represent a unique club where those sort of things happen”.
“Being away from this competition for six years is too long for such a massive club,” he added.
Yet, there are unique barriers to Rangers being anything more than early round fodder in the Europa League, namely Celtic having the title sewn up and Scotland appearing set to reside in the mid-20s in the Uefa country rankings.
These two factors conspire to make the Ibrox club’s passage extremely tricky.
“We have to come through eight matches, four qualifying ties. It’s a challenge. It’s really a challenge. We know it is difficult,” said Caixinha, whose side would likely play Cypriots Limassol if they avoid an upset against Progres.
“We tried to make a small study from the last five seasons and at least one club, some seasons two clubs, went from the first qualifiers to the group stage. Monaco with the Portuguese coach Leonardo Jardim [went] from the third qualifying round of the Champions League [to] the semi-finals. That’s an achievement.
“But our focus is tie by tie, qualifier by qualifier, and the target is to get to the group stage and after that we see what happens. If we think that this massive club needs to be there we are trying to do everything to put things on the normal track. But also we are not only defending Rangers, we are defending Rangers and Scotland. If you see for example the co-efficient, the poor co-efficient that Scotland has right now, and knowing that you only get 0.25 points for getting through the first qualifier and 0.50 for getting through the second qualifier and after that you get 1.0 and 1.5 points you need to add a lot of qualifiers, you need to win a lot of matches, to raise the level of the company. So we are defending Rangers in the first place and doing that the best possible way we also help the country.”
Caixinha isn’t daft, he does not expect the country to see it that way, with little love for Rangers among supporters of other clubs.
It is Caixinha’s desire to play a brand of football that draws appreciation. To do that, he has reshaped a squad more in shorter period of time than on any previous occasion in a career that has taken him from Portugal to Mexico and Qatar. Caixinha is confident the wholesale changes, which have resulted in eight summer signings with more pending, will be justified by progress this season.
“Everything that has been done so far has been working and gone according to the plan. We followed it, believed it and are convinced about.
“It’s been a huge task that this club has undertaken in this transfer window. But knowing we were starting so early, we did a massive job. We still have some positions to fill regarding to the plan, but we think we can do it with two months to finish it.”
The manager has also welcomed the arrival of Mark Allen from Manchester City as director of football and the resolution to the long-running dispute with Mike Ashley which has resulted in a new retail deal being struck with the Sports Direct owner which will see Rangers generate an estimated £5 million per year from the sale of replica kits.
“It was important to get the director of football and also the situation with Sports Direct and the kits,” said Caixinha. “The club is going in the right direction and everything is getting back to normal, which allowed us to work with even more motivation and a will to deliver to the fans.”