Rangers' return to the Champions League - the picture is becoming clearer

In just seven weeks’ time, Rangers will see their name going into those perspex bowls at UEFA headquarters in Nyon for the third qualifying round draw of the Champions League.

RB Salzburg, pictured on Saturday after collecting the Austrian Bundesliga trophy for an eighth consecutive season, will be the highest ranked opponents Rangers could face in the Champions League play-off round. (Photo by Andreas Schaad/Getty Images)

For manager Steven Gerrard and his players, the reward for their commanding 2020-21 Scottish Premiership title triumph is a place in the champions’ path of qualifiers in Europe’s elite club competition.

Rangers must negotiate two two-legged ties if they are to reach the lucrative group stage of the Champions League for the first time since the 2010-11 season.

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The good news for the Ibrox club is that they will be one of the seeded teams in the third qualifying round. But if they justify that status and progress, they will be unseeded in the final play-off round where they could face some heavyweight opposition.

Rangers captain James Tavernier and manager Steven Gerrard with the Scottish Premiership trophy after a title win which means they will face just two qualifiers in their bid to reach the Champions League group stage next season. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

Picture becoming clearer

With most of Europe’s domestic campaigns having concluded, it’s possible to make a fairly clear assessment of the teams who will potentially stand in Rangers’ way.

That third qualifying round group stage draw will take place on July 19 with six seeded and six unseeded clubs in the champions’ path. While Rangers' place among the seeds is assured, the identity of their six possible opponents will depend on who comes through the first two qualifying rounds.

But assuming the teams with the highest UEFA coefficient ranking make it, then the six would be:-

Rangers could face a Champions League rematch with Slavia Prague next season after the explosive meeting of the teams in the last 16 of the Europa League at Ibrox in March. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

Ludogorets Razgrad - Bulgaria’s dominant club clinched their 10th consecutive domestic league title with four games to spare. They last reached the Champions League group stage in 2016-17 and this season finished bottom of their Europa League group.

Malmo - The Swedish club were the last team Rangers played in the Champions League, losing to them in the third qualifying round in 2011-12. Now managed by former AC Milan and Denmark striker Jon Dahl Tomasson, Malmo last reached the Champions League group stage in 2015-16 when they beat Celtic in the play-off round.

Cluj - The Romanian champions, who have won a fourth consecutive domestic title this season, are another familiar name for Scottish football fans after beating Celtic in the third qualifying round of the Champions League in 2019-20. They reached the group stage of the Europa League this season, finishing third behind Roma and Young Boys.

Legia Warsaw - Polish title winners for a second consecutive season, Legia last reached the Champions League group stage in 2016-17. Rangers have recent history against them, having edged them out 1-0 on aggregate in a Europa League play-off tie two years ago.

Ferencvaros - The Budapest club have reestablished themselves as Hungary’s leading side under coach Serhiy Rebrov, winning three domestic titles in a row. They reached the Champions League group stage this season, beating Celtic 2-1 en route at Parkhead in the third qualifying round.

Sheriff Tiraspol - The Moldovan champions are slated to be the lowest ranked side in the third qualifying round draw and will be regarded as the easiest option by the seeded clubs. Sheriff have never reached the Champions League group stage.

Getting tougher

If Rangers reach the champions’ path play-off round, their task will become appreciably more difficult. There will be four seeded and four unseeded clubs in that draw which will be held on August 2, before the third qualifying round ties are played on August 3 and 10.

Rangers would definitely be unseeded and, partially dependent on who comes through the previous qualifying rounds, their four possible seeded opponents would be:-

Red Bull Salzburg - The Austrian champions, who celebrated their eighth consecutive domestic title at the weekend, are the highest ranked team in the qualifiers and will start their campaign in the play-off round. They are losing highly rated American coach Jesse Marsch to RB Leipzig this summer but will still be the side the unseeded clubs will hope to avoid.

Dinamo Zagreb - The four-in-a-row Croatian champions will start out in the first qualifying round but it will be a surprise if they don’t reach the play-off round. Last in the group stage in 2019-20, this season they reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League.

Slavia Prague - The potential is there for what would inevitably be a grudge match between Rangers and the Czech champions after the Europa League last 16 tie between the clubs in March which was disfigured by the racial abuse of Ibrox midfielder Glen Kamara. On a purely footballing basis, Slavia’s 2-0 win over Rangers showed how difficult they would be to overcome again. Slavia will start their campaign in the third qualifying round.

Olympiacos - The Greek champions, who will enter the tournament in the second qualifying round, reached the group stage of the Champions League this season from where they dropped into the Europa League and lost to Arsenal in the last 16.

Gerrard's eyes on the prize

Whoever Rangers are paired with, Gerrard’s outstanding record in Europe since taking charge of the club in the summer of 2018 should provide grounds for optimism among their supporters. Three consecutive qualifications for the Europa League have been secured by Gerrard who has lost only six of the 45 European games he has overseen so far.

Rangers are guaranteed European group stage football of some form next season. If they lose in the Champions League play-off round, they will go into the Europa League group stage. If they lose in the Champions League third qualifying round, they will go into the Europa League play-off round where another defeat would parachute them into the group stage of the new third-tier Europa Conference League.

But the prize Gerrard’s eyes will be firmly focused on is a place on the main stage of the Champions League, a tournament which brought him his greatest moment as a player and which could now take his burgeoning managerial career to the next level.

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