Rangers: Why there's hope for optimism against 'manufactured' opponents with visceral hatred

RB Leipzig are looking to claim a continental first when taking on Rangers in the Europa League semi-final. We talk you through the German Bundesliga outfit ...

Domenico Tedesco has revived RB Leipzig's fortunes since joining five months ago.
Domenico Tedesco has revived RB Leipzig's fortunes since joining five months ago.

Who are they?

Often simply referred to by an epithet rather than their name, the term “most hated club in German football” has become shorthand for RB Leipzig. Despised for their manufactured status that is owed to the football franchising of drinks company backers Red Bull, there is a strange quirk concerning their history when set against the insecurities over such matters that dog Rangers following the old Ibrox club’s 2012 liquidation. Red Bull’s desire to have a major player in the Bundesliga led to them acquiring the playing rights of fifth tier SSV Markranstädt in 2009. They had no interest in giving that Saxony club a mighty makeover, though, and sought not only to change the name but declare their takeover as year zero for the newly fashioned RB Leipzig. The RB standing for the made-up term RasenBallsport (sport played with a ball on a lawn is the literal translation), you understand…not the drinks company. Oh no, of course not, which would have been a breach of sponsorship rules. UEFA, however, said they could not claim themselves to be a new club but instead would be recognised as an old club that just happened to have new backers, a new name, new logo and new club colours. Colours, of course, that just happen to be the red and white of Red Bull. The company also – legally – circumvented the ‘50-plus-one’ voting shares ownership rules in Germany football meant to ensure clubs must be responsive to the individuals that support them.

To rivals, this boardroom-financials genesis – which allowed RB Leipzig to make the leap from nowhere to become a leading player in the European game across little more than a decade – makes them a plastic football team that exist only to further the commercial ends of a multi-national. Such a visceral hatred of Leipzig from within the Germany football fraternity has proved no impediment to them fulfilling practically all Red Bull’s ambitions, helped by some handy player-trading involving their ‘sister’ clubs RB Salzburg and New York Red Bulls (two clubs where the company’s name and bull logo do appear, without tweaks, on their badges).

Fans of RB Leipzig cheer on their team during last weekend's match against Union Berlin.
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By 2016-17 they weren’t simply in Germany’s top flight but instantly the closest challengers – if not that close – to the country’s title-monopolising superpower Bayern Munich. In all but one of the seasons since they have finished in the top three. The access this has granted them to regular European football has certainly been capitalised on. The last-four tie with Rangers will be their second in three seasons, after losing to PSG in in the Champions League one-off semi-final of 2020. Also a Europa League quarter-finalist in 2018, they see their match-up with Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s men as a glorious opportunity to reach a first European final.

Manager

Italian-German Domenico Tedesco has only been in charge at Leipzig for just over five months, but the 36-year-old has revolutionised the club’s fortunes. The departure of Julian Nagelsmann for Bayern Munich in the summer led Leipzig to keep it in the family and pluck American Jesse Marsch from RB Salzburg. His brief stint proved disastrous and Leipzig were 12th when he was discarded in December, with six defeats and only five wins the product of his 14 Bundesliga games in charge. His permanent successor has restored Leipzig’s competitiveness, the club firmly in hunt for second place again and into the final of the country’s national cup.

Recent form

Christopher Nkunku, left, is one of RB Leipzig's form players.

The loss of two late goals at home to Union Berlin on Sunday resulted in Leipzig’s first defeat in 16 games, their previous loss a 3-2 reverse away to Bayern Munich in early February. They are unquestionably Germany’s form team, despite the glitch against a Union side they had beaten the previous midweek in the semi-final of the country’s national cup. Their unbeaten sequence included a Europa League last 16 elimination of Real Sociedad before they ousted Atalanta to set up their date with Rangers. For context, among their recent notable results was a 4-1 thumping of Borussia Dortmund in the Westfalenstadion, a month after the Ibrox men’s memorable 4-2 success at the arena.

Reasons for Rangers to fear them

Currently a lofty 15th in the UEFA rankings, Leipzig have been transformed under head coach Tedesco in 2022. They boast 15 wins and four draws from their 21 games played this year, scalping Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen, Atalanta and Real Sociedad along the way. Their hopes of a Europa League and national couple double, in addition to a top-two Bundesliga placing, have been propelled by the goals of French striker Christopher Nkunku, who is already on the 30 mark, with 10 of these coming in Europe following his double to see off Atalanta in the Italian second leg of the clubs’ Europa League quarter-final. The 24-year-old’s exploits have earned him international recognition this season, and ensured his value has shot up from the £11m forked out to bring him from PSG in 2019. The striker is one of a clutch of big-money captures made by a club that has invested more than £200m in the current squad in continuing to specialise in polishing up youthful diamonds for high resale value, a la Chelsea’s Timo Werner, the forward in whose footsteps Nkunku has followed.

Reasons to give Rangers hope

Leipzig will be without three first choices for Rangers’ visit for Thursday’s first leg; centre-backs Willi Orban and Mohamed Simakan, and midfielder Kevin Kampl all suspended. The absence of the defenders creates real issues in the German’s backline, with 3-4-1-2 the favoured team shape. In addition, signs of fatigue were detected in Leizpig’s loss against Union at the weekend as they coughed up two goals at the close to chuck away a winning position.

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