Rangers are in top 33 but one feature makes them stand out from rest - now is time to put that right
Rangers ended last season a lofty 33rd in the UEFA club rankings calculated from coefficient points earned over five seasons.
Such upperwardly mobile status owes much to reaching the Europa League final in May, though plenty of groundwork was laid with their previous three creditable continental campaigns. Their remarkable rebuild in the European domain provides them with a standing they have not enjoyed since their 2008 UEFA Cup final appearance pushed them up to 24th. Notably, though, there is one factor that distinguishes the Ibrox team from every other of those among the top 33 – they are alone in not having appeared in the Champions League group stages in the past six years.
Ending their exile from world football’s pre-eminent club tournament remains the one itch Rangers have still to scratch since liquidation in 2012 forced them to start against in Scottish football’s fourth tier. In the past two years, they have accomplished storied feats that eclipse vast swathes of the successes from any team playing out of Ibrox over the entire modern age. Tales of the 2021-22 unbeaten league campaign that claimed them a first title in a decade – and ended Celtic’s quest for a record 10th straight championship – and the follow up of a European run that witnessed Borrussia Dortmund, Braga and RB Leipzig melt in the Ibrox fan-furnace will be passed down through generations of the Rangers faithful. Yet, a mere one generation cannot be allowed to continue to pass without the Govan amphitheatre playing host to the Champions League group stage football, which it hasn’t since 2011.
And when it comes to that, the path to European football’s promised land appears encouragingly negotiable in the next four weeks. Set against this, Rangers simply do not want to countenance what, effectively, would be a fourth missed chance to bank Champions League football in little over a year. The inexplicable Ryan Kent miss from point-blank range as extra-time of their Europa League decider against Eintracht Frankfurt came to a close remains agonising. Yet, the double whammy of the subsequent penalty shoot-out defeat – which denied them a place among the top seeds in this season’s Champions League group stages – was still more forgivable than their excruciating exit from the continent’s blue riband cross-border tournament at the third qualifying round stage to Malmo this time ago.
However desperate that was, though – the home return loss to a 10-man opponent particularly egregious – the opposition had form for such upsets through being well-versed in contesting European qualifiers, and were halfway through their season. None of this is true of the Union Saint-Gilloise side Rangers will face at the Den Dreef Stadium in Leuven on Tuesday evening. The Belgian club may have finished runners-up in their top flight last season, but the fact even Ibrox manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst described such exploits as coming in a “fairytale season”, betrays what an unknown quantity they are in European environment.
Even to themselves. To the extent the Dutchman had no issue acknowledging his Europa League finalists are strong favourites to progress to the play-off round. USG’s league placing was the stuff of fantasy because it came at the end of their first top flight season in 49 years. By extension then, they are complete novices in continental competition. Going deep in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup a couple of times almost six decades ago isn’t relevant.
Relevant is that Rangers seemed to nail down, to an absolute tee, just how to pace yourself in European ties settled on your own patch. Something van Bronckhorst is leaning into now. “What we did really well last season, and also the season before that, was that it's two games so you don't want to enter the second game without a good opportunity to go through,” he said. “We did that really well last year and have had good preparation [for this season] because we were playing against very good sides. The preparation is normal, now we have to execute the game plan and be at the best in the games for two times, 90 minutes or more.”
Of course, that wasn’t the case with the Malmo tie, but this is not on van Bronckhorst with the failure on the watch of predecessor Steven Gerrard. And that changeover is significant as far as Rangers defender Connor Goldson appears concerned. “We take a lot of confidence, 100 per cent, from last season, especially with the new manager coming in and settling in Europe,” the Englishman said. “Tactically he’s very good and he watches the opposition so much. He changes depending on what opposition we are playing and even during games he will change the system. We know how to be a bit different tactically and I think that will stand us in good stead. We have had a good pre-season, we are looking strong.”
There is always an element of the unpredictable in games played so early in the season, but nothing that should prevent Rangers – likely – having either PSV Eindhoven or Dinamo Kyiv blocking their path to the Champions League group stages come the conclusion of the USG second leg next Tuesday. Especially when their Belgian opponents are adapting to life under first time manager Karel Geraerts. The 40-year-old has only been in post for seven weeks and two league games after stepping up to the role from being assistant to Felice Mazzu, who moved to Anderlecht in the summer.
The Rangers manager certainly has a host of selection decisions to mull over. He must decide who replaces the injured Ryan Kent, if Jon McLaughlin is preferred over Allan McGregor in goal, who steps in for John Souttar after he was left out of the squad, and make a call on Malik Tillman starting subsequent to the US international impressing as a game-change substitute in West Lothian. Yet, all are dilemmas his counterpart Geraerts is sure to envy.
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