Michael Beale has left little Rangers wriggle room in setting Europa League baseline and bigging up Jose Cifuentes

How the football world turns.
Rangers manager Michael Beale needs Jose Cifuentes to demonstrate why he played much store in bringing him to Ibrox with Nicolas Raskin now lost to injury. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)Rangers manager Michael Beale needs Jose Cifuentes to demonstrate why he played much store in bringing him to Ibrox with Nicolas Raskin now lost to injury. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)
Rangers manager Michael Beale needs Jose Cifuentes to demonstrate why he played much store in bringing him to Ibrox with Nicolas Raskin now lost to injury. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

It is only 16 months since Rangers’ last Europa League excursion. The club then to be found in Seville on a quest to be recognised as the best team in the tournament. Altogether distinct from their return to the domain. Now there are few takers for them merely besting opponents from Seville, even in their own environs. There is a palpable sense of did-that-really-happen about Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s team being edged out in a penalty shoot-out by Eintracht Frankfurt in the May 2022 Europa League final. A feeling engendered when left to consider the far more prosaic aims that could still be problematic for Michael Beale’s underwhelming side. Real Betis haven’t exactly been pulling up trees in La Liga this season, but appear of sufficient calibre to fell their Ibrox hosts’ in the Group C opener. The losses to Celtic and PSV Eindhoven of late to leave the Englishman out on a limb too fresh to anticipate any other outcome.

Rangers’ fall from the heights that took them to the competition’s decider two seasons ago is perhaps unwittingly given away by Rabbi Matondo’s reflections on watching their run to an historic confrontation in Andalusia from afar. The Welsh winger having joined Rangers in a £2.7m deal from Schalke six weeks after they agonisingly came up short against Frankfurt. “From the outside I was getting goosebumps and I didn’t even know half of them at that time, so you can only imagine being involved in it yourself. I don’t know how I’d feel,” said the 23-year-old, in a manner that could be taken to imply he wasn’t expecting to find out any time soon.

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On the back of a 20-player turnover in the summer that witnessed nine arrivals, Beale made one notable comment following the 5-1 slamming in Eindoven ending the club’s interest in the Champions League. He said that the Europa League was more suited to his embryonic team growing into themselves in continental competition. Now, as Betis hoves into view, he has given himself little wriggle room over the pace of this growth. A section containing Manuel Pelligrini’s side, Sparta Prague and Aris Limassol offers potential possibilities should the Ibrox effect of two seasons be maximised to the full. Yet, with Rangers appearing so uncertain right now - and deprived of Nicolas Raskin, Todd Cantwell and Danilo for the opening two fixtures, as the trio have been sidelined by injury for the next month - the pitfalls cannot be ignored. Beale, though, has to give the club’s fanbase, presently atheistic to his powers, reason to believe in him. His route to that was delivering a baseline for his team’s endeavours in Group C.

“It’s one game at a time [but] we need to get out of the group and get to the knock-out stages,” he said. “It’s a good group we are in. Real Betis were sixth in La Liga and they won their Europa League group [last season], which included Roma. Roma went all the way to the final, so they’ve shown their pedigree in this competition. They recruited well in the summer too. It’s a competitive group, but we’re expected to get out of it. I think we should be looking to get out of this group.”

The Englishman continued to riff on this theme when asked about the importance of European football to the club. In a season where the club’s faithful are entirely consumed by Celtic being stopped from landing a 12th title in 13 years. “It’s the same as always, there’s a financial element, but there’s also the competition element,” said the 43-year-old. “You are playing against teams with different styles who’ve obviously been successful in their own domestic leagues. That challenge can help you domestically, because the level is high and your team is getting exposed to different things. As a club we have a huge tradition in Europe and those European nights. It’s important we have a good season in Europe. Let’s get out of the group.”

It’s as if Beale feels that by repeating the mantra focusing on emerging from the group, this will make it happen. Instead, his players have to do that. The Rangers manager bigs-up what Jose Cifuentes can provide in the absence of Raskin. As Kemar Roofe will take over from Danilo as the central striker, flanked by Rabbi Matondo and Abdallah Sima. And for all the issues experienced with the apparent flakiness in certain forward-line combinations - Cyriel Dessers often implicated - there will be more confidence in this attacking trio than the Ecuadorian’s presence in the centre of the pitch.

Van Bronckhorst slid towards the Ibrox exit over the period of the European group stages because, amid dreadful injury problems, the horsings suffered in the Champions League against Liverpool, Ajax and Napoli led to the Dutchman being flogged for his summer recruitment. Beale must avoid the same fate. He daren’t suffer a heavy loss against Betis, and daren’t see Cifuentes - a player he so trumpeted as the midfielder was being weedled out of LAFC in the summer - turn in the sort of languid display characteristic of his unremarkable early outings for the Ibrox side.

“He played against Argentina last week with his international team. He is experienced. He has played at a World Cup,” said Beale. “The domestic games are a little bit more different than the European games for him, so let’s see. He is clearly a talented player and the more he plays, the more people will be aware of that. He is a player we brought in with high hopes for and this gives him an opportunity to have a run in the team now.” There were many high hopes swirling around Rangers in the close season. Beale now has to hope his remoulded squad can stop dashing them.



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