Rangers' Aris assignment doesn't look vital on paper but it really is: December 17 spectre, avoiding big guns and maintaining momentum

John Souttar during a Rangers training session ahead of facing Aris.John Souttar during a Rangers training session ahead of facing Aris.
John Souttar during a Rangers training session ahead of facing Aris.
Defeating the Cypriot champions will let Gers travel in smoother waters ahead of cup final

The weather was warm and sunny but dark clouds accompanied Rangers everywhere they went the previous time they faced Aris Limassol. It was early October and Michael Beale had just been sacked as manager following a wretched start to the season.

Thrown into this maelstrom to try to bring a semblance of order was Steven Davis, handed the reins on a temporary basis starting with a trip to Cyprus on Europa League duty. It was always fanciful to think putting a club legend in charge would be sufficient to bring about an immediate arrest of the decline and so it proved. There would be no caretaker manager bump as Rangers slumped to a fifth defeat of the season.

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Aris are the reigning Cypriot champions but relative novices on the European front, and the ease with which they were able to cut open the Rangers defence to forge a two-goal advantage would have caused widespread alarm among their supporters watching inside the stadium or back at home. Just how deep was this malaise?

Philippe Clement addresses the media ahead of facing Aris.Philippe Clement addresses the media ahead of facing Aris.
Philippe Clement addresses the media ahead of facing Aris.

Rangers got one goal back through Abdallah Sima but never looked like rescuing the situation. Davis did not try to sugarcoat it afterwards, admitting the club found itself in a “difficult place” and that the focus would need to be “continuing with the basics first and foremost”.

It looked for all the world that whoever was going to come in to succeed Beale on a permanent basis was going to have a difficult and lengthy rebuilding operation on their hands to revitalise a squad that seemed bereft of morale and deficient in cohesion.

And yet here we are. The rematch with Aris is upon us and Rangers are, if not fully restored, then a far more buoyant and optimistic proposition than had been the case just eight weeks ago. Much of that most go down to the work undertaken by Philippe Clement, the Belgian parachuted in to try salvage Rangers from their early-season troubles.

Clement comes across as an earnest figure, pragmatic to the point of almost robotic, unwilling to indulge in sentiment or other dreamy distractions. It can make him seem cold and calculating at times – every match in his eyes carries as much weight as the ones before and after it – and he is not a man to rush to for anyone hoping for sensational soundbites.

Perhaps, though, he was the sort of focused, strategic character this distressed Rangers team needed. They have yet to lose a game since that trip to Cyprus, scratching out late goals to break Hearts and antagonise Aberdeen, a sign that Clement is either a manager who also enjoys his fair share of good fortune or one who demands his players never give up on a seemingly hopeless cause. And that latter point was not something readily evident in the latter stages of Beale’s tenure.

Rangers have 11 fixtures to fit in between now and the onset of the winter break on January 2 and while Clement will, with a steely gaze, insist none are more significant than the others, that clearly isn’t the case. The most important game in that run will be the Viaplay Cup final meeting with Aberdeen on December 17, closely followed by the league derby against Celtic 13 days later to close out a turbulent, tumultuous year.

Tonight’s meeting with Aris doesn’t trump either of those but is vital for its own reasons. Victory for Rangers will ensure their involvement in the Europa League extends into the new year, an achievement that not only bolsters their standing as a club worthy of respect in the European arena but also keeps alive their prospects of journeying deep into this competition as they did two seasons ago.

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Whether Rangers resume their involvement in the round of 16 or the knock-out round that precedes it will also depend both on the result in tonight’s other game between Sparta Prague and Real Betis, and then Rangers’ trip to play the Spaniards in the final Group C match on December 14. Adding intrigue to that showdown in Seville is the fact it takes place just three days before the cup final – something they also had to conjure with on their previous trip to that corner of Andalusia back in May 2022.

Finishing second in the table will mean landing a likely formidable opponent in the knockout round, a match-up with one of the third-placed teams dropping down from the Champions League. The group winners, who get an additional month’s respite before they re-enter the competition, will take on one of the victors from that knockout round.

A raucous Ibrox crowd will expect Rangers to take care of an Aris side who have lost their three other Europa League group games after that highpoint in early October. Clement is fully aware of what went on in Cyprus before he was appointed but sees no reason to make the players relive the nightmare.

“Of course, I looked back to those games,” he said, as if there was ever any doubt. “It’s always interesting to see how the players reacted and what they did. I also asked them what the instructions were for that game. We want to do a few things different from that game, that is clear.

“But I don’t want them to think about the last game because that can create some negativity in your head. I want them to continue what they have been doing until now. In a lot of moments that has been really good.

“With that we will make our story stronger and stronger in the next couple of weeks and for sure in the next couple of months. That is the normal way in football.”