There was turkey with all the trimmings at the Hummel training centre as Rangers enjoyed an early festive celebration yesterday. But the real cheer came with a favourable Europa League draw that paired the Ibrox outfit with Portuguese side Braga, a draw that has given rise to optimism that Rangers can take a substantial bite into the Europa League this term.
Being knocked off the top perch in the group stages was not all bad, then.
Rangers’ Group G rivals Porto took prime spot last Thursday night following the late goal by Young Boys that prevented Steven Gerrard’s side from progressing into the knockout stages as winners. Porto’s reward yesterday was a daunting last-32 tie against Bayer Leverkusen. Rangers, by contrast, have a far more palatable pairing.
“I think it’s an excellent draw for us,” was Greg Stewart’s immediate response to the news. “It’s a game we feel we can definitely win over two legs. We played against probably a Portuguese Champions League team in Porto, so we’ll be feeling confident with that draw. It was exciting watching it. We had our Christmas dinner at the training ground and watched it. We had turkey and trimmings.”
Still, while drawing Braga oxygenises aspirations of going deeper into the tournament, Stewart was candid enough to admit that there had been some among the Ibrox dressing room who had been looking towards the glamour tie.
There were prestigious names in the draw that Rangers avoided, most certainly to their own benefit, although Stewart acknowledged that there was a hankering to test themselves at that level.
“It was a mixed bag for the boys as some of them wanted the big hitters like the Inter Milans and Manchester Uniteds,” said Stewart. “We’ve done well in Europe this season and it’s another game that we’ll look forward to and have confidence that we can get through.
“We’ve performed really well in Europe. We’ll take confidence from facing a lot of good teams. You can look at the draw as if it’s going to be easier, but that’s not the case. It’ll be just as hard as any other game.
“I suppose they [Manchester United] are not going as well as they were years ago. You could say that United and Arsenal are struggling in the English Premier League a little bit and Rangers could get the glamour ties and knock them out, but it’s difficult no matter who you get.”
Porto lie second top in their homeland, seven points off the pace of Benfica, while Braga are in ninth.
Rangers’ belief stems not only from the four points out of six they took in the group stages from Porto with a spirited draw away from home and a win at Ibrox but from the manner in which they played, with an increased maturity in the European campaign as a whole.
Qualification came via the collection of nine points along the way with the Ibrox side losing only one game in the group. There were big results against Feyenoord and perhaps the most notable aspect of Rangers’ progress is that it has been achieved while also sustaining a solid domestic pursuit of Celtic.
Braga, however, might not be flying in a domestic sense but their Europa League campaign was notable. Unbeaten in a group with Wolves, Slovan Bratislava and Besiktas, they won four and drew two to give them 14 points from their campaign. Only Seville could better that tally. Similarly, their 15 goals scored in the group stages was the joint highest of the campaign along with AZ Alkmaar. They are not a team to be taken lightly, regardless of their current league status.
“You look at that record and know Braga are going to be a good team,” said Stewart. “They won their group and they will be a good side, we know that.
“We’ll be confident going into it and look forward to the challenge. There are a lot of tough matches beforehand, so we’ll put it to the back of our minds.”
The challenge for Stewart is to try to get himself involved in games against the Portuguese side. The 29-year-old has made only one Europa League group appearance – the defeat by Young Boys away from home in October – with no further involvement
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t disappointing not to play every game but you can only pick 11 players,” said Stewart.
“It’s just the way it goes. As a team and group, there is a good chemistry about the squad.
“That’s all you can try to do as a player. When you get a chance, you try to get in the manager’s mind to pick you for the next game. But, as I said, the boys have been performing well in the last few games.
“It has been difficult to get in and the manager has not really changed much. It is just the way it is.”