An old friend could become a dangerous foe for Steven Gerrard on Thursday night when the Rangers manager attempts to lead his club into the group stage of the Europa League for a third consecutive season.
In a play-off round tie against a Galatasaray side Gerrard describes as ‘Champions League level’ opposition, he will have a wary and respectful eye on the potential threat his former Liverpool team-mate Ryan Babel could pose.
The Dutch international winger, now 33, scored the second goal as the Turkish giants defeated Hajduk Split 2-0 in Istanbul to secure the single-leg showdown against Rangers at Ibrox.
Babel spent three and a half years at Liverpool, joining from Ajax in 2007 for a fee of £11.5 million. While he was inconsistent during his time at Anfield, he earned the respect of Gerrard, inset, both on a personal and professional basis.
“I know Ryan very well, he is a good friend of mine,” said the former Liverpool captain. “I really enjoyed playing alongside him. I think he is now in a good place in terms of where he is at with his football.
“He had a little bit of a mixed time at Liverpool but when he got it right, he was a hell of a player to play alongside because he is powerful, he is quick, he can go past players and he has a cannon in his right foot. So he is a very dangerous opponent. But I know Galatasaray quite well in terms of personnel.
“We will have to find out a little more in terms of what system they are playing and their style home and away. We will do a lot more work this week on that. But it goes without saying that we are talking about a giant of a club. We will certainly have our respect for them come Thursday.
“It’s not getting easier as we progress through these qualifiers and that’s been the case in my two years here. At each stage, the level of opponent, individually and collectively, goes higher.
“Football is about levels, there is no getting away from it. But this will be up there alongside the Portos, the Feyenoords and the Bragas of this world that we’ve played recently.
“We are going into a Champions League level of game. We are going to have to find a special level of performance.”
It promises to be an emotional occasion for Rangers playmaker Ianis Hagi who was born in Istanbul during his father Gheorghe’s hugely successful spell as a Galatasaray player. But Gerrard wants to ensure the 21-year-old Romanian is not unduly distracted by his family’s strong connection with the club standing between Rangers and the group stage.
“Yes, I appreciate and respect all that but with all due respect it’s not about that,” said Gerrard. “This is about Rangers v Galatasaray. Ianis is in a good place at the moment and is going from strength to strength from pre-season.
“He is really starting to come to the fore in terms of numbers and creation in his game. So we are very pleased with him. We don’t want him to go to this game with any baggage or thinking about anything that is not necessary. He just needs to focus on the 90 minutes and try to find his best performance for us.
“Anything else that comes around the fixture in terms of sentiment, we respect it but it’s not really important.”
Rangers are in a buoyant mood after their 4-0 win over Willem II in the third qualifying round last Thursday but before they turn their attention to Galatasaray, they will look to return to winning ways in the Premiership against Motherwell at Fir Park today after dropping two points away to Hibs last weekend.
“We have always had a difficult challenge down at Motherwell, Stephen Robinson has his team fired up,” said Gerrard.
“They are a big team and they will give us a right physical challenge. It’s a game we are looking forward to but we have to be right from a mental point of view, make sure we recover well.
“It’s good for us that Motherwell have had a similar week in terms of what they have had to put into their week with the travel in the Europa League and it seems like they had a tough game in Israel.
“So it’s even-stevens, if you like, from the kick-off. There are certainly no excuses from where we are. We have to be prepared to put in a good performance because we have to try to take maximum points.”
Motherwell are seeking to bounce back after their midweek elimination from the Europa League at the hands of Hapoel Beer Sheva.
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