Rangers v Red Star Belgrade: Why Giovanni van Bronckhorst will want to repeat history and carry first leg lead to Serbia
The underground tunnel between the dressing rooms and pitch of the Red Star Stadium, Belgrade, has been a way-point for Scottish teams en route to two of the most recent European main-stage appearances - Scotland, at last summer’s Euro 2020 finals, and Rangers’ UEFA Cup run to Manchester in 2008.
Thursday evening will go a long way to determining if it will be again.
Rangers are 180 minutes away from the Europa League quarter finals, at the last-16 stage they have reached for the third times in the past three years.
Having eliminated Borussia Dortmund, the tournament favourites in the last round, Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s team now faces the Serbian SuperLiga champions Crvena Zvezda in the last 16, first at Ibrox, before the Scottish champions head to the Marakana, now known as the Rajko Mitić Stadium, for the crucial second leg.
The abolished away goals rule enhances the prospect of penalties if two teams cannot be separated on aggregate, no matter where or when the goals are scored.
Ryan Jack, take note.
The Rangers midfielder was an integral part of Steve Clarke’s Scotland side which edged into the European Championships in the Serbian shoot-out of November 2019 when the sides couldn’t be separated by 120minutes of football.
Little split Rangers and Red Star when they first met in 1964 and a draw 5-5 on aggregate had to be settled at the neutral venue of Highbury, where Rangers won 3-1.
There was little between the sides when they last met either, and Thursday’s first leg will be pivotal in setting the tone of this tie, just as they did emphatically against tournament favourites BVB in the last round.
Nacho Novo scored in the final minute of the 2007 first leg between the teams, a 1-0 aggregate lead that was retained in Belgrade’s hostile atmosphere, leading to progress into the Champions League and eventually the UEFA Cup final at the end of that marathon 2007/08 season.
The earlier meeting between the sides resulted in a final as well - for Red Star – as they eliminated Graeme Souness’ team on their way to lifting the 1991 European Cup - a 3-0 first leg win inspired by Robert Prosinecki again swung the impetus before a 1-1 draw at Ibrox.
Thursday’s first leg then, takes on added significance.
Rangers are facing a team second in their league, within a match of their city rivals and boasting strong European form. It sounds familiar, but the form of Dejan Stanković’s team sounds a warning for the Scottish champions’ wayward recent results.
Unbeaten since the start of November, going into this afternoon’s Superliga match with Novi Pazar, they even threw in a penalty shoot-out win at their home ground against Radnicki Nis last month and a Belgrade derby win over Partizan.
Now, Giovanni van Bronckhorst has cleared the Premiership meeting with Aberdeen from the schedule, the red-letter day with Red Star looms large in the Rangers manager’s calendar. Fully focussed on St Johnstone in midweek he didn’t make any substitutions en route to a 1-0 win. Now it’ll be a case of tunnel vision on Red Star – aiming to carry a lead through the Marakana’s hostile underground passage and returning for a dressing room dance like Scotland did almost 18 months ago.