RB Leipzig v Rangers: Giovanni van Bronckhorst forms a Europa League plan to cope with loss of key men
For only the seventh time since they first set foot on the competitive continental stage 66 years ago, Rangers are in the knockout semi-final stage of a European tournament.
The rarity of that opportunity cannot be lost on Giovanni van Bronckhorst and his players, especially in the modern era when the formats of UEFA’s club competitions are significantly weighted against clubs from countries like Scotland getting this far.
Rangers have done it the hard way this season, showing durability, resilience and no little quality to reach the last four of the Europa League where they face RB Leipzig in the first leg in Germany on Thursday night.
This will be Rangers’ 17th European game of the campaign – they are the only one of the semi-finalists who kicked off in the qualifying rounds last August and also the only group stage runners-up to have made it this far.
Van Bronckhorst deserves the lion’s share of the credit. His first match after replacing Steven Gerrard as manager in November was a must-win Group A fixture against Sparta Prague at Ibrox which was duly delivered and subsequently followed up with three admirable aggregate triumphs over Borussia Dortmund, Red Star Belgrade and Braga in the knockout phase which have showcased the Dutchman’s considerable coaching acumen at this level.
He will need all of that and perhaps a little more if Rangers are to overcome Leipzig and claim a place against either West Ham United or Eintracht Frankfurt in the final in Seville on May 18.
How van Bronckhorst mitigates for the injury absence of his two leading strikers, Alfredo Morelos and Kemar Roofe, would seem to hold the key to whether Rangers can defy the bookmakers who rate them a 4-1 chance to qualify and have Leipzig installed as 1-6 favourites to win the tie.
Fashion Sakala, Rangers’ only other recognised striker, looked ill-equipped for the central role in attack when he was deployed there in the first leg of the quarter-final in Braga. Ryan Kent, Joe Aribo and Scott Arfield have all been mooted as potential candidates for a ‘false nine’ role in a more defensively-minded set-up in Leipzig but if the pundits have been chewing that over endlessly, van Bronckhorst doesn’t give the impression of a man whose team selection or formation has been giving him sleepless nights.
“Well, (it’s) not a big decision,” he said. “We have players who are not available. I always watch the opponent and look at which players we have available and make my plans for the game.
“We need a big performance in this game so there is no big decision for me. It’s just about choosing the right game-plan and the players performing well.
“You always want to attack and create chances. I think we have shown that in all the games we have had - also away from home.
“We just have to make sure we do the right thing at the right moment. I am sure we will have moments when we are defending.
“But we have to also wait for moments when we can attack and create dangerous chances to score. It’s a semi-final of the Europa League so the level is high and the level that’s needed is also high.
“So we have to prepare well and make sure we have a good result to take back to Ibrox for the second leg next week.”
Leipzig, who dropped out of a heavyweight Champions League group in which they finished third behind Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, were held to draws at home in the first legs of both their Europa League knockout round ties against Real Sociedad and Atalanta before winning by two-goal margins in each of the second legs on the road.
They will nonetheless hope to travel to Glasgow with a lead next week and in-form French international attacking midfielder Christopher Nkunku, who has scored 10 of his 30 goals this season in Europe, poses the most obvious threat to Rangers.
It promises to be another occasion when the enduring ability of Allan McGregor is put to the test. The 40-year-old goalkeeper, who missed Rangers’ semi-final and final matches in the UEFA Cup when they last progressed as far in a European tournament 14 years ago, is savouring the occasion but insists he will approach it no differently than he has any other in his long career.
“It was obviously disappointing (not to play) last time (in 2008) but this is a different challenge, a wee bit further on in my life,” said McGregor.
“I never thought it was going to happen, to be honest with you. Obviously it will be special for every player - to get to this stage in a European competition with the club is massive.
“You do your due diligence beforehand but it’s a game of football, as if you are playing any other team.
“That’s not being disrespectful, by the way. You just need to face the challenges that come ahead. That’s it, regardless of who you are playing.
“Any team has a chance to score and it’s being in the right position at that time and dealing with it. It doesn’t matter who it is, in my opinion.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s him (Nkunku) who takes a shot, whoever takes a shot. If you are playing a team in the third division, if you’re playing a team in the semi-final of the Europa League, you still need to save it or deal with it.”
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