Rangers in Champions League: Union Saint-Gilloise relish that could temper Ibrox escapology
Rangers, and their followers, must beware of relying on intangibles in their Champions League rescue mission against Union Saint-Gilloise.
It is understandable to focus on the Houdini-like properties that Ibrox seems to have generated on nights such as the one awaiting Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s team. A deciding leg of their third qualifying return tie wherein the act of escapology must trump any witnessed in the club’s near-60 year European history. The consequence of the knots they tied themselves in with their abject showing in a 2-0 loss in Leuven a week ago. Indeed, few haven’t followed the line that these binds ought to be able to be picked apart when it is considered how Rangers have extricated themselves from tight spots so very recently in continental competition.
The logic follows as thus: Union, with no pedigree in contesting their first European tie for 58 years, are sure to go pop in the face of the intoxicating effervescence Rangers have so thrillingly surfed on such occasions. How could they not fracture in the sort of frenzy created by a 50,000 home crowd with which they are entirely unaccustomed, when last season European middleweights SC Braga and RB Leipzig cracked under that? Fracturing that allowed their energised opponent to reach the Europa League final.
All well and good. However, it can overlook certain factors. Even beyond the fact that, unlike this week, both against the Portuguese - who played 78 of the 120 minutes required to settle their tie with 10 men - and the Bundesliga side, only single-goal deficits were required to be wiped out to sustain a remarkable campaign. Shoot-out shortcomings in Seville ultimately all that prevented silverware being snared at the conclusion of it.
The Belgians may seem a more modest proposition than any Rangers encountered in those knock-out stages of the Europa League. Worryingly, though, they may be better suited to protecting a lead than the front-foot teams van Bronckhorst’s men had to overcome in the latter stages of their run last season. By repute, USG relish soaking up pressure. Their ideal is being able to camp in and pick off more vaunted opponents. That explains why they were top of the Jupiler League at the end of the regular season with only one away defeat. In contrast to four losses in their own backyard across that programme.
They simply have no interest in making the play and, even as Rangers performed in headless fashion across the first leg, the damage wreaked by their hosts came with only 40% possession. Karel Garaerts’ team are set up to play on the counter-attack where they can utilise the lightning pace of attackers Dante Vanzier and Lazare Amani. In recognising the need for patience from both his players and the paying public inside Ibrox, van Bronckhorst would appear well aware of the dangers presented by this ploy. On an evening where failing to retain hopes of ending a 12-year wait to return Champions League football at Ibrox could cause significant reputational damage for him in the early weeks of his first full season in charge. “Of course you want to have a good start,” he said. “We always have a good start at home. [But] it’s about finding the right balance. Of course we have to score goals but we also have to keep organised because it is a team which is also very good in transition moments into attack. The balance is everything.”
The problem is that good balance and structure have eluded Rangers over their first three competitive encounters - as it wasn’t in the Europa League knock-out stages, when he didn’t have a host of new players to integrate. Alfredo Morelos and Ryan Kent starting, as seems likely following their injury problems, could alleviate some of the recent issues in providing the Ibrox side with the services of two monster assets; proven matchwinners on the European stage. Neither, though, can be fully fit. Morelos has played less than half an hour of competitive football in five months. Meanwhile, Kent hasn’t come through a full training session since picking up his ankle knock in the opening day win at Livingston more than a week ago. Selecting them is a gamble van Bronckhorst could be forced to take. He has to get the band back together again. The question is whether he can get them to play the same tunes as they were in the earlier part of the year when performances weren’t off-key as in more immediate times - at the very least, with the display in Belgium the footballing equivalent of an ear-bleeding racket.
In his pre-match, the Dutchman was asked whether, in their own environs, it was more natural for his team to play in the aggressive fashion demanded by the examination they must pass to progress to the Champions League play-off…and keep alive the quest for the transformative £40m bounty that would be delivered by group stage participation. He sort of hedged his bets on that. “It depends,” the Rangers manager said. “I think it’s both. It is two games in a tie and you don’t want to go away and be really open and give chances away. I think the set-up we had away was a set-up we are used to playing away from home. Your performance has to be there, and that’s what I saw last week when we didn’t have the performance we normally have. Too many players didn’t have their best night and that makes it really difficult, no matter which system you play. I think that was the big difference last week compared with the campaign we had last year. Now we play at home and, of course, if you are 2-0 down you have to play a different way because you have to create more chances and you have to score goals. That’s a different mindset compared to last week.” Absolutely everything must be different from last week for Rangers.
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