Leverkusen looks like a game too far for Rangers

James Tavernier is staying positive about Europa League

Rangers right-back James Tavernier. Picture: SNS Group
Rangers right-back James Tavernier. Picture: SNS Group

Rangers’ players and management might make all the right noises about their assignment in Germany this week. The truth is, though, that the trip to face Bayer Leverkusen in the return leg of their last 32 Europa League tie is a game they could well do without.

It is little under five months since they lost 3-1 at home to the Bundesliga side, the 12 March meeting the last played in front of a full stadium in Scotland before the Covid-19 enforced shut-down. For Steven Gerrard’s men, the wait between legs necessitated by the global health emergency has merely meant a delay in the inevitable.

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It is impossible to envisage the Ibrox side racking up the three-goal victory required to overturn the first-leg deficit. No Rangers team has ever effected such a turnaround in continental competition on unfamiliar soil. A situation made bleaker by the fact Leverkusen were the first team in 15 matches to inflict a European home defeat on Gerrard’s men.

Rangers’ focus right now has to be on mounting the strongest possible challenge to Celtic as their bitter rivals chase a tenth consecutive title that their support cannot countenance. An unwinnable tie sandwiched between their first and second Premiership fixtures is a distraction from that. Not least because it will make unwelcome travel demands of them.

Club captain James Tavernier cannot be seen to simply throw in the towel, of course. Leverkusen completed their last league campaign behind closed doors in mid-June. Effectively then, they are in the midst of their close season with the 2020/21 Bundesliga season not kicking off until 12 September. They have remained in the news in recent days because prized asset Kai Havertz – who netted a VAR-award penalty at Ibrox – is the subject of £70million bid from Chelsea.

Leverkusen are resigned to losing their 21-year-old attacking midfielder but are understood to be unwilling to part with him until their interest in the Europa League is ended. And, as if a glutton for punishment, Tavernier wants it to be the case that initial reports the player could move before Thursday prove unfounded.

“Kai Havertz is a very young, very gifted footballer,” said the Rangers right-back. “He’s shown the rest of the world his qualities and ability and caught the interest of big name clubs. But you always want to play against the best players, so I hope he stays and if we can play against him then it’s one of those nights you know you’re up against the best and stand up to it.”

In seeking grounds to believe that Gerrard’s side could retrieve the situation that appears forlorn, Tavernier points to the 2-0 wins over Lyon and Nice that delivered them the Veolia Trophy in Paris a fortnight ago. And the fact that in the past two years Rangers have prevailed against pedigree teams such as Porto, Braga, Feyenoord and Legia Warsaw as they have twice come through four qualifying rounds to reach the Europa League group stages.

“We’re obviously on the back foot but we’ve always done well in European football and had a great pre-season and good tests against Lyon and Nice,” he said. “During the Europa League campaign we’ve always gone toe-to-toe and we need to go over there and give it our all.

“It’s been an incredible journey we’ve been on from last season into this season with the teams we’ve overcome in Europe and that gives us great belief. It will be a case of who wants it more on the night and I know our players are so hungry to get the right result.”

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