How Rangers can bridge 14-year gap and go where no Scottish club has gone before
The hand of history will be on Rangers’ shoulders as they embark on their Europa League last 16 tie against Red Star Belgrade.
Understandably, the prestige and pounds available to the Ibrox club in the event of overcoming their Serbians opponents has been the focus ahead of the pair’s Glasgow first leg on Thursday. Posterity, though, is also up for grabs to Rangers as well as the £1.5m prize money for the tie winners, never mind crucial co-efficient points for their national causes.
It is 13 years since the UEFA Cup was rebranded and reformatted to become the Europa League. In that time, no Scottish team has ever contested the last eight of the competition. Rangers, then, have the opportunity to boldly go where no team from their country has gone before in European football’s second tier competition.
As it stands, the Govan club stand alone within their borders even in making it as far as the last 16 of the Europa League. Indeed, this is the third season in succession they will contest this stage. The fact they have enjoyed life in continental competition beyond participating in European group stages for three straight campaigns is in itself no small feat. Only once before - between 2005-06 and 2007-08 - have they achieved that.
Of course, in 2007-08, Rangers did a whole lot more through reaching the final of the second-last UEFA Cup, before losing to Zenit St Petersburg. In so doing, that odyssey stands as the last time a Scottish team featured in the quarter-finals of a European tournament. It would not have seemed probable then that there would be at least a 14-year interval before a Scottish club would still be in continental competition when the clocks changed.
There was reason for believing the Glasgow big two - if no others, frankly - had it in them to continue to making a genuine impression in the second string competition. Celtic’s run to the final of the 2003 UEFA Cup final resulted from their ousting Liverpool to earn a quarter-final berth and they made it to the last eight of the competition the following year, courtesy of taking down Barcelona. Furthermore, Celtic and Rangers had both made last 16 in the more exacting environment of the Champions League in this millennium, Rangers in 2005-06, and Celtic the following two years.
However, subsequent to Rangers prevailing against Werder Bremen and Fiorentina in 2008, knock-out wins over teams from the five top-ranked European nations had been non-existent until van Bronckhorst’s men vanquished Borussia Dortmund a fortnight ago. Inbetween 2008 and 2022, Scotland’s status in continental competition declined through the absence in the latter stages coinciding with a whole host of nations at least making the quarter finals of the second string European competition.
In the past 14 years, although both the Champions League and UEFA Cup/Europa League have been dominated by the leading countries, that hasn’t made the last eight of the latter a bridge too far for clubs hailing from more modest set-ups. Across the past three years alone, Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb and Denmark’s FC Copenhagen have contested the quarter finals of the Europa League. In total, 15 countries have done so since 2008: Spain, Germany, France, Italy, England, Ukraine, Russia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Belgium, Turkey, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Austria the other 13. Rangers will never have a better chance to add Scotland to that list.
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