Rangers braced for toughest test on key milestone for Steven Gerrard as coaching staff highlight ones to watch

A journey which began for Steven Gerrard against modest Macedonian opposition three years ago will reach its half-century landmark against formidable French visitors at Ibrox on Thursday night.

First team coach Michael Beale (right) has been by Rangers manager Steven Gerrard's side throughout the Ibrox club's European campaigns since 2018. (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)

Since that opening 2-0 win over Shkupi in his first competitive fixture as Rangers manager in July 2018, Gerrard’s impressive rebuild of the club’s stature and credibility has been founded on their Europa League exploits.

He will mark his 50th European game in charge with the visit of Lyon to Glasgow this week as Rangers begin their fourth consecutive group stage campaign in UEFA’s second-tier tournament.

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While there was bitter disappointment for Gerrard last month when a 4-2 aggregate defeat to Malmo ended hopes of taking the step up into the Champions League this season, the Europa League continues to offer scope for development on the pitch for Rangers and financial rewards off it.

Lyon's Brazilian midfielder Thiago Mendes (right) in action against Angel Di Maria during a match against Paris Saint-Germain last season. (Photo by JEFF PACHOUD/AFP via Getty Images)

The Lyon kings

In a group which also includes Czech side Sparta Prague and Danish champions Brondby, Gerrard will hope to lead Rangers into the knockout phase of the tournament for a third successive year.

Top seeds Lyon present a major opening-night test and while much of the focus inevitably surrounds their former Celtic striker Moussa Dembele, such a scourge of Rangers during his time in Scotland, the Ligue 1 luminaries carry danger throughout their ranks.

“They are arguably the most talented squad we have faced in Europe so far,” says Rangers first team coach Michael Beale, who has been Gerrard’s tactical confidante since he decided to take the plunge into management.

Alfredo Morelos, now Rangers' all-time record European goalscorer, celebrates after finding the net against Porto in Portugal in October 2019. (Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images)

Writing on his coaching blog, Beale highlights the Lyon trio of Houssem Aouar, Lucas Paqueta and Bruno Guimaraes. Midfielder Aouar, 23, is a French international while defensive midfielder Guimaraes, also 23, and 24-year-old playmaker Paqueta, signed from AC Milan last year, are both full Brazilian internationals.

Beale also has personal knowledge of another of Lyon’s Brazilian stars from his time as assistant manager at Sao Paulo.

“They have a squad full of top young players like those mentioned above who have the potential to arrive in the Premier League in the future,” says Beale.

“One of their key midfielders is Thiago Mendes who I worked with at Sao Paulo FC. He is an extremely talented player who has done very well since coming to Europe and it will be good to see him again.

“Houssem Aouar is a player that I love to watch and I believe he is a fantastic talent. At 22, he has a huge future and for young players, he is a great example of close control, the ability to twist/turn away from pressure and to change the speed of the game when needed.”

Lyon are under new management this season with Dutch coach Peter Bosz at the helm. He requires no introduction to Rangers, having been in charge of Bayer Leverkusen when the German club beat them 4-1 on aggregate in the last 32 of the Europa League two seasons ago.

The Ibrox factor

Bayer’s 3-1 win at Ibrox was one of only three defeats Rangers have suffered at home in Europe under Gerrard – the others were last season’s bitter 2-0 loss to Slavia Prague in the last 16 of the Europa League and last month’s 2-1 reversal to Malmo in the Champions League third qualifying round.

“We have had some memorable nights at Ibrox and the fans have always played their part in making the occasions so special,” says Beale.

“The roar against Feyenoord as (Sheyi) Ojo crashed in the winning goal, or the noise against Legia Warsaw, when (Alfredo) Morelos scored the last minute winner were moments that you will never forget.

“The (Joe) Aribo mazy run and (Ianis) Hagi free kick to complete a fantastic turnaround against Braga will be a game that lives long in the memory.

“Our opponents are equally lucky to experience the chance to play at Ibrox on a European night – it’s something that all our opponents mention when visiting Glasgow. Let’s hope for many more nights like those in the future. The fans are able to give the team a huge lift on the pitch with their energy and passionate support.”

Accelerated development

Of the previous 49 European games Rangers have played since Gerrard became manager, Beale picks out the November night in northern Portugal two years ago as the occasion their squad came of age on the continental stage.

Alfredo Morelos scored in a 1-1 draw against Porto which illustrated the growing maturity of Gerrard’s team.

“Porto away is my favourite European game as a coach,” adds Beale. “We played very well that night and should have won the game (in my opinion).

“It was a night that accelerated our team's development by 20/30% as we grew in belief and confidence at this level against a really high quality opponent.

“We underlined that just a few weeks later when we beat Porto in the return game at Ibrox 2-0.

“The most important games were the ones that got us qualification to the group stages each season against UFA, Legia Warsaw, Galatasaray and Alashkert, both in terms of future growth opportunities and exposure it gave us as a group/club but also the finances it has generated for the club to continue to build.

“The contrast in styles of play in European competition is fantastic. When the groups are drawn you will play teams from three different countries who play in different styles – both formation and preferred principles of play – but also with referees from around Europe who also officiate the game with slight differences. As a coach or player this can only be beneficial for your development as you come up against confident and strong opponents who are expected/used to winning.”

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