This is the 11th group campaign for the Ibrox side across the three decades of European club football’s foremost competition. It is debatable if they have ever known a more exacting fixture list over that time than was assured through drawing Liverpool, Napoli and Ajax. Yet, there is unlikely to be any recognition of this fact if at Anfield on Tuesday night they succumb to a fate avoided in all but one of their previous 10 campaigns. A fate that, frankly, they haven’t been given an earthly of being spared against Jurgen Klopp’s men…however erratic Liverpool themselves have proved this season.
The Group A misadventures for Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s men over the past month means Rangers go into their Anfield assignment on the back of two heavy losses: a desperate 4-0 reverse in Amsterdam followed up by a more creditable – but no less damaging – 3-0 home reverse to the Serie A leaders. Only in their ghastly 1995-96 Champions League tilt, when their opponents were Grasshopper Zurich, Auxerre and Ajax again (how they would love to be keeping such company as the first two now), did they fail to pick up a solitary point across their opening three games. Then they leaked nine goals during this trio of encounters… only two more than in their Group A ‘goals against’ column right now.
All of which engenders the feeling that, even with last season’s Champions League runners-up fresh from appearing decidedly porous in their home 3-3 draw weekend draw with Brighton, Rangers are on a hiding to nothing in one of football’s truly fabled citadels. Yet, the relaxed demeanour of their Dutch manager in his pre-match duties hinted he might actually relish a complete absence of expectation. Even as he acknowledged that despite taking the Ibrox men to the Europa League final last season and scalping Borussia Dortmund en route, their latest challenge is unmatched for its arduousness across his tenure. “It is going to be very difficult,” said van Bronckhorst. “It is a team who perform really well in the Premier League, they were in three [Champions League] finals in the last five years. I think they are still one of the best teams in Europe. If you look at all the opponents we faced last season in Europe and also this season, this is probably the strongest side.”
What could be considered to run contrary to that assertion is Klopp’s men having won only three of their nine matches this season. With Rangers’ form undulating in its own ways - the 4-0 thumping of Hearts in Gorgie on Saturday their most confident showing of the campaign - it was put to the Ibrox manager that no-one [could] know what to expect from either team when the pair face off. A suggestion that tickled him. ‘Well, it’s a good game then,” he said, laughing. “The game could go all the way… it’s the beauty of football. Of course we didn’t start well in Europe, but the last two results we had in the league were very positive for us. For Liverpool it was a result they didn’t want on Saturday, but still it’s a great side. Sometimes it’s the beauty of the game when you don’t know what to expect. But form is also temporary, and can change in one game. We have to be prepared. If the form of Liverpool changes tomorrow, we have to be prepared. We always have the belief; it all starts with belief. If you don’t have any belief when you go on the pitch you are going to face an impossible challenge. That’s the character we have to show. It’s also the character we have shown in the past and we have to have the same spirit and belief to get something out of the game. That’s where it starts – before you enter the pitch. You have to be ready mentally as well, because it is a very hard ground to come to. We have to be prepared tactically for the challenge we face against Liverpool but also for the atmosphere we are going to face tomorrow.’
Van Bronckhorst could be prepared to spring a few surprises as he seeks to avoid an outcome that could be the beginning of the end for any realistic ambitions of avoiding bottom slot in Group A, and with that a November exit from continental competition. There were whispers of a possible 3-5-2 formation in which 18-year-old Leon King would be deployed at the back alongside Ben Davies and Connor Goldson - James Sands suspended following the red card that caused the Napoli clash to run away from the Ibrox men. The move would allow John Lundstram to be retained in midfield, where he could be joined by such as Scott Arfield and Glen Kamara as Rangers seek their moments to press with energy to prevent Liverpool enjoying the time and space to dictate consistently. With James Tavernier and Borna Barisic then utilised as wing-backs, there is a feeling that Ryan Kent could be played off Alfredo Morelos. The Colombian may be playing second fiddle to the free-scoring Antonio Colak in the domestic domain - his Tynescastle double taking his tally to 11 goals in 14 appearances - but it is notable Morelos was given the nod against Napoli. Not that van Bronckhorst was willing to divulge his intentions on which of them would be deployed as the central striker.
“The decision is not difficult because you always look at the opponent and how you want to play and what kind of game we expect it to be, and then we choose the best option,” said the Rangers manager. “It’s good because both are in a really good position at the moment. Antonio has scored a lot of goals in the league and Morelos when he came in also [on Saturday against Hearts]. They are two different kinds of strikers but we will always look at the game ahead.”