Having disposed of the Dutch title runners-up in a play-off, on the back of reaching the Europa League final last season, Rangers were back where they belonged and ready to make their mark at the top table after a 12-year absence. They certainly left a mark, just not the one they would have hoped for as Tuesday’s 3-1 defeat to Ajax left them pointless and with a goal difference of minus 20 to earn the unwanted tag of having the worst record in the competition's history.
Liverpool, Napoli and Ajax exposed every flaw in Rangers armoury that the likes of Sparta Prague, Brondby, Red Star Belgrade and even Borussia Dortmund were unable to in Europe's second tier last season. The gulf was greater than anticipated, admitted Rangers defender James Sands.
“I think it is a big step up from the Europa League," he said. “We did well in that competition last year but it seems we have missed a step and gone straight in with the very best teams in the Champions League. It has been an experience for all of us and we have to learn from it. I think it has been a bit of a surprise for everyone. I believe we have three of the best teams in Europe in our group so it was extremely tough. We were a little surpised by the quality, but we got better as the group went on which is a positive. It is a learning experience for all of us and hopefully we can use it to help us in the league. We still have a chance to win some trophies this season."
Sands insists Rangers have gained a lot from their chastening experience which they will be able to use to their benefit should they make it back to the Champions League group stages next season.
"For a lot of us it was our first time playing in the competition and coming up against that calibre of player," he said. “This is where we want to be and hopefully we can be here next year. Playing against the top teams you have to be right on it for 90 minutes. In a lot of the games we have had good spells for 20 minutes or half an hour. But, we have then lost focus and you get punished with two or three goals. I think that is probaly the biggest takeaway for us from the Champions League.”
Rangers results in Europe – combined with patchy form domestically – have put pressure on manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst but Sands insists the Dutchman has been a steadying influence for the players throughout a difficult period.
“He is trying to help us focus on this being a learning process," he said. “He has been trying to take the emotion out of it a bit and for us to try and use these experiences positively in the league. This is where it helps having a manager who was a player at the top level. He has been through all these things so he can share his experiences. We all look up to him because of the player he was."