There can be a fine line between realism and defeatism in football. Steven Gerrard treads that line gingerly when assessing Rangers’ prospects in their imminent Europa League campaign.
The Ibrox manager’s success in bringing continental group stage football to the club twice inside 14 months – remarkably remaining unbeaten across the 16 qualifying games required to do so – should never be underplayed. Equally, though, Gerrard does not want to overplay the slim possibility his team could now claim one of the top two places in a section that contains Feyenoord – in Glasgow for Rangers’ opener on Thursday – Porto and Young Boys. The degree of difficulty is ramped up from his first season as a manager, when they narrowly failed to make it out of a group that pitted them against Villarreal, Rapid Vienna and Spartak Moscow. Gerrard firmly believes he has ratcheted up the strength of his team to cope, but the equation may still not favour his club.
“I’m not going to say it would be a miracle [to progress from the group] because I don’t think it’s as big as that,” Gerrard stated. “But I think it would be a special achievement to get out of the group and reach the knockout round. To come from where we were as a club, to progress and get out of the calibre of group we’re in – it would be a fantastic achievement.”
The fear for a sizeable chunk of the Rangers support is that the club’s European sortie, because it is so daunting, offers little more than potential pain and diversion when they can ill-afford morale and sinews to be sapped as they seek to stop Celtic claiming a record-equalling ninth straight title…and so end any possibility of a dreaded ten for them.
Gerrard can’t afford to see the Europa League in so negative a light. He points out that it is only by dint of their extended interest in continental competition he could afford to run so sizeable a squad as could prove key in the title race. This is true in terms of finances and having the spread of games to supply players the game time to keep them franchised.
Above all, though, Gerrard is the ultimate European football aficionado. The domain is where he enjoyed the greatest achievements of his career – his central role in the miracle of Istanbul that bore witness to Liverpool’s Champions League triumph 2005 never to be forgotten – and he recognises that Ibrox on a such a night can have that same zing as makes Anfield so energising on such occasions. Moreover, the experiences cross-border competition provide is crucial both to testing himself and developing as a coach.
“I love it,” he said. “Europe’s the pinnacle. Of course we are the underdogs in the group, we have to realise where we are as a club, but at the same time we are not going to just roll over and finish bottom of this group with zero points – that’s not going to happen.
“The hunger’s there in the group off the back of a disappointing Old Firm result. But we’ve got a huge European game this week and this is what we all signed up for here. So let’s go and enjoy it, as well as giving it everything we’ve got.
“These are the nights the fans want. These are the nights I want to coach in, of course, and I know the players have worked ever so hard to get this opportunity but when you do get it, people say do you move away from the domestic [priorities]. That’s very difficult because there will be a full house here on Thursday, there will be a roar at kick-off and an expectation for us to go and compete and get the right result. That’s the reason why I’ve tried to get a squad capable to compete on both [fronts], but we’re under no illusions.”
Maybe the presence of Jaap Stam in the Feyenoord technical area will convince Gerrard that any odds can be upset. At least this week. The Dutchman, who took charge of the Rotterdam club this summer, was at the heart of the AC Milan defence that leaked three second half goals in the Turkish capital that famous night 14 years ago. A turnaround the caused the Italians to lose the Champions League trophy on penalties to a Liverpool side they seemed to have buried with three early goals. [As a player] he was top drawer,” said Gerrard. “You don’t get to play for Manchester United and AC Milan and in Champions League finals if you are not. Very difficult to get past him in one v one. Thankfully he switched off against me for one second...but it wasn’t just his fault. I’m sure he’s blaming Nesta as well. I have huge respect for him but it’s crazy the way that one minute you’re on a football pitch with them and the next minute you’re arguing with them on the side of a pitch over your own players.”