There was an expectation Ibrox was where the upscaling of Rangers that was undertaken by Steven Gerrard over the summer would really bear fruit. Recent evidence suggests that some of the old issues may not have been entirely solved.
For all that they didn’t truly come close to mounting a serious challenge to Celtic last season, it was notable that Gerrard’s men boasted the best away record in the Premiership. It was at home, ranged against packed defences, that they sometimes lacked the nous to knock opponents down.
For 55 minutes on Saturday, the home faithful were concerned that a familiar story from the previous campaign was about to unfold once again after a grafting Livingston had repelled their hosts and snatched a lead courtesy of a careless penalty concession.
Credit must be given to Rangers for finding the means to shake themselves to shakedown the victory. They did so courtesy of a freakish free-kick equaliser by James Tavernier, followed by a headed strike from the redoubtable Alfredo Morelos, before substitute Brandon Barker netted on his Ibrox debut following his loan move from Manchester City.
However, on the back of failing to land a glove on Celtic in their derby loss in their own environs, and requiring an extra-time winner at Ibrox to see off Legia Warsaw to book their place in the Europa League group stages, Rangers have now toiled three times to avoid tensing up as their home crowd have transmitted audible anxieties.
On Saturday, their case wasn’t helped by losing Ryan Kent to a hamstring tweak on his first outing following the £7 million deadline-day move from Liverpool. The winger, who had grown into the role of innovator for the Ibrox team while on loan in Glasgow last season, will now miss the Europa League curtain-raiser that sees Rangers entertain Feyenoord on Thursday. The club, then, have lost for several weeks the very man that Gerrard, following a summer-long pursuit, had placed so much hope in being his principal game-changer. This fact, and the erratic nature of recent home displays, would not appear to bode well for the clash with Jaap Stam’s side.
Yet, the fact Feyenoord are unlikely to adopt a rope-a-dope approach could help Gerrard’s side. Rangers must hope so since the exacting nature of their group – which will pit them against Porto and Young Boys – requires they make an early statement, and harvest an early win.
With the quest to prevent Celtic equalling the Scottish record run of nine titles this season all consuming, many Rangers fans consider Europe to be an unwelcome distraction. All the more so when Gerrard admits their prospects of emerging from the group they have been handed are firmly on the slim side.
One Rangers supporter though, in the form of left-back Andy Halliday, sets himself apart from the naysayers. “To be honest, I am delighted with the group that we have got,” he said. “It is a bit of a Champions League group and the objective was to get into the group stages this year because you want to play these kind of fixtures. It is a big test for us but we have been tested before in the Europa League and stood up to it.
“I think this is a level above. It is a real test and all the fixtures are going to come with different issues. The one on Thursday is one we are really looking forward to and we have just got to take it a game at a time and see where it can take us.”
Halliday believes the very fact he can offer such musings is testament to the progress Gerrard has made in the continental domain. Twice under Gerrard, Rangers have now negotiated four qualifying rounds to secure group stage football – coming close to making it out of a group that contained Villarreal, Rapid Vienna and Spartak Moscow last season .
“I think we have shown now that we do belong in this competition,” Halliday said. “I think over the last two years we have shown that we belong here and that we can compete at this level. It is a step above but it is one I think we can handle.”