Rangers in the Europa League final: Penny for the thoughts of Steven Gerrard and Jon Dahl Tomasson
Remember Jon Dahl Tomasson? The Malmo manager discovered how easy it is to become a meme when he smirked and winked towards camera during a pre-match press conference before the second leg of a Champions League third qualifying tie against Rangers in August.
Discussion had turned to which side was operating under greater pressure following Malmo’s 2-1 win in the first leg in Sweden. Tomasson reckoned it was Rangers, unsurprisingly.
He tugged at the sleeve of his tracksuit top and employed what can only be described as some top-notch shithousery. “Don’t you think that they need the Champions League money, yeah? I think so,” he said. “I think they need that. I think that’s a good answer, isn’t it?”
He grinned, he smirked. There was a glint in his eye, there was even a wink. He was clearly enjoying himself. Tomasson then tried something rarely attempted when it comes to interactions with the Scottish media. He chose flattery. Asked if he wished to expand on his answer, he scanned the room and said: “I think you are all clever lads, so you understand it…yeah.”
Rangers duly went out and played as if there was a bailiff knocking on the Ibrox front door again. Ten-man Malmo scored twice in the second half to dump the hosts out of the Champions League.
It was a display of mindgames par excellence from the former AC Milan striker, whose team went on to qualify for the Champions League group stage before then finishing bottom of their group after losing five games. They haven’t played a European game since December. Meantime, it’s May and Rangers are still going strong and have a Europa League final to look forward to a week on Wednesday. Malmo have completed a Champions League group stage, enjoyed a close and pre-season and begun a new season. The team they conquered are on the same European run that started so inauspiciously in August.
Remarkably, Rangers are now one more win away from being parachuted straight into the Champions League group stage. Not only that, but they will also be placed among the pot one teams. Celtic will be a pot four side even if they end up winning the league.
Estimates put the value of a win over Eintracht Frankfurt later this month as high as £60 million, with over £20m having already been earned from the European run thus far.
The stinging defeat to Malmo, unacceptable though it seemed at the time, has since proved a blessing in disguise. With the best will in the world, it’s hard to see how Rangers could have qualified for the knockout stages of Europe’s blue riband competition. Look at Malmo themselves. Such an accomplished looking side in both legs against Rangers, they took just one point from six games after negotiating the play-off round. Beaten 4-0 by Chelsea and Zenit, and 3-0 at home by Juventus, few of their fans will be buying tee shirts celebrating only their third-ever Champions League group stage campaign.
At the Rangers shop, meanwhile, they have already stitched together a Sevilla 2022 hoodie (£35). A “Finalist” mug (£12) is also on sale. A “Finalist friendship pennant” is already sold out. On Amazon, there’s a tee shirt charting Rangers’ Europa League journey: Yerevan, Prague, Brondby, Decines (Lyon), Dortmund, Belgrade, Braga, Leipzig and Seville.
Which brings us to Steven Gerrard, who was in charge for the first three of those trips. While it was unspoken, his departure for Aston Villa in November – after defeats in Rangers’ opening two Europa League group games – seemed to hinge on a feeling that he had taken the Ibrox side as far as he could. On top of this, Villa offered an opportunity he could not afford to turn down. Hmmm.
It has already been suggested that Rangers would not have reached the final were Gerrard still in charge. Perhaps. What we do know is fact is that Gerrard was involved in a battle to keep his team in mid-table yesterday against Burnley in front of 17,000 at Turf Moor. It can’t have set the pulse racing.
Ibrox, by contrast, will be in ferment this afternoon against Dundee United as Rangers return to action. Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side will be dodging beach balls while aiming to keep the league championship issue alive for a few more days at least. But really, does this even matter any longer? It’s not as if Rangers are bidding to prevent Celtic winning ten in a row. They did that last season. As they never tire of reminding us, Rangers already have 55 Scottish league titles. What’s one more? The Europa League final is the big one. It’s the chance to do something that’s been achieved only once in the Ibrox club’s history: win a European trophy.
This is just their fifth final. You say just. That’s already three more than Manchester City have managed, four more than Villa. Another one, a Super Cup final, could lie just around the corner against either Liverpool or Real Madrid. Van Bronckhorst stands on the cusp of something very special indeed. This, surely, is what is meant by "the glory game". Rangers are also bidding to win a first Scottish Cup since 2009 against Hearts on the weekend after Seville. Gerrard wouldn’t be human if he wasn’t feeling some regret at missing out, particularly since all the players who featured against RB Leipzig on Thursday date to his time at Ibrox. The awful news about the death of Jimmy Bell, the long-serving Rangers kitman, had already stirred his emotions earlier in the week.
Gerrard was asked about Rangers’ success at his pre-match press conference on Friday and he sounded as pleased as anyone would be at seeing former friends and colleagues excel.
Remembering the badge on his tracksuit, he then made some crowd-pleasing comments about wanting to ensure he could enjoy such nights with Villa. But such times seem a long way off at present.
Now that Jurgen Klopp has just signed a new contract extension at Liverpool, Gerrard’s options, even if he can arrest Villa’s recent slide, suddenly look somewhat less enticing.
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