When Steven Gerrard thinks of Europe’s second-string competition, first-rate memories fizz into his mind.
Trumping all others is a certain night at the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund on 16 May, 2001, when he was part of the Liverpool side that edged out Alaves 5-4 in an epic Uefa Cup final. “It’s one of the highlights of my career, I’d some terrific experiences in it, the trophy is amazing,” said the 38-year-old.
That enthusiasm Gerrard is now channelling into leading Rangers into the Europa League, the rebranded-reconfigured Uefa Cup, as the club faithful continue to pinch themselves his all-new Ibrox team were able to negotiate four qualifying rounds unbeaten to earn a sectional berth.
With Villarreal to be faced in Castellon on Thursday night before Spartak Moscow and Rapid Vienna come calling, Gerrard and his men have their work cut out to build on an important staging post in the rehabilitation of Rangers. The Ibrox manager seeks to marry caution to confidence in this mission. He acknowledges that the technical level and standard of player they will meet will rise from the summer knock-outs, but refuses to be cowed by these plain truths.
“This is what we, as a group, since we came together on 15 June, have given so much energy, effort and commitment, and given body on the line stuff to achieve. So we want to enjoy it, embrace it, we want our supporters to have some good trips and good experiences at Ibrox.
“If you go back 12 months [to Rangers’ loss to Progres Niederkorn] 100 per cent, it was a wonderful achievement for everyone and the players deserve incredible praise for that. But now that we’re here we don’t want to just settle for being a number in the group. The draw was tough for us but exciting at the same time and as a manager it’s my job to put belief into the players that they are capable of getting out the group, however we do it, it’s a great challenge for us and we are going to try and get out of the group.”
Gerrard maintains a template was not set for how they will attempt to do this after their qualifying success was founded on their ability to sit back and soak up pressure in so many of their ties.
“Those games made us into that philosophy,” he said. “It hasn’t been a plan of ours to go and set up and defend for our lives. I don’t think Rangers try and do that. We want to have a shape and organisation where we are hard to play against and respect the opposition but we want to try and go and play when we win the ball back. We want to go and create chances and score. I am not just going to try and defend and try and nick a point, although a point on the road in Europe wouldn’t be a bad result.”
It would be beyond all expectations for his “underdogs” this week against a Villarreal side who finished fifth in La Liga last season, behind only Spain’s colossal quartet of Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Valencia. They haven’t got going in their current league campaign with only one point from three games ahead of their trip to Leganes today. Gerrard will have that one watched and the international break has afforded him the chance to binge on video footage of the Spaniards.
One player he does not need to brush up on any knowledge of is midfielder Santi Cazorla, who returned to his first club from Arsenal in the summer. A magician was employed to make Cazorla from an empty box in front of a stand full of Villarreal fans with an utterly bizarre smoke and mirrors routine.
From his Anfield days, Gerrard knows what it is like to not see the 33-year-old playmaker for dust. An impact substitute for Spain’s Euro triumphs of 2008 and 2012 – he missed out on their 2010 World Cup success with one of the many injury lay-offs he has endured across his career – his 77-cap career is testament to his abilities when set against the daunting competition to be a schemer during his country’s golden age of this type.
“Murder” is how Gerrard recalls Cazorla was to play against. “He was a top player. Very low centre of gravity, could manipulate the ball with either foot.
“Any player who played in the best Spanish side of all time, the starting eleven, deserves respect. I know he’s had his injury problems of late but he was a tough, tough player to play against.
“Not tough in terms of pressing you, getting in your face and being aggressive. Instead it was a case that you go near him and he’ll pass it round you and can make fun of you with either foot. He’s a top, top manipulator of the ball.
“He was a regular in Spain’s squad when you’re talking about names like [Andres] Iniesta, Xavi, David Silva and [Cesc] Fabregas. He’s right in the mix with all the big hitters there so he’s been a top footballer. Sometimes I did alright, others it didn’t go well against him. That’s the way it is.”
And that is the way it could be for Rangers in a Europa League group that requires them to proceed with extreme caution.