'One of the best nights I had with Rangers' - Van Bronckhorst ready to handle his emotional Ibrox return
As he faces the first of 11 games in a hectic 39-day period before the winter break which could define the trajectory of his managerial tenure at Rangers, there will be precious little scope for Giovanni van Bronckhorst to savour the moment when he walks out of the tunnel into the technical area at Ibrox on Thursday night.
But while overseeing the win over Sparta Prague which the Scottish champions need to progress to the knockout stage of the Europa League is his primary focus, van Bronckhorst wouldn’t be human if he didn’t allow himself at least a few seconds to bask in the emotion of his return to the club.
His three years as a player for Rangers encompassed some dramatic and epic European nights at Ibrox. All told, he scored five goals in 28 European appearances for the club which included two group stage campaigns in the Champions League.
Even though he went on to reach the zenith of European club football by winning the Champions League as a Barcelona player in 2006, van Bronckhorst still fondly recalls his experiences on the continental stage with Rangers.
“I am looking forward to the first game back in the stadium and of course it will bring many memories of my time when I was a player,” he said.
“Very good memories. I can’t wait to feel the atmosphere again in the stadium but I am old enough to separate my emotions into the focus I need to perform with the team.
“Before the game, it will be mixed feelings - but once the whistle goes from the referee, I will be fully focused on my task and that is to guide my team to victory.
“I had a couple of favourite European nights with Rangers. The win over Parma at Ibrox (in 1999) we had for qualification for the Champions League was a very good experience. We qualified for the group stages by beating a Parma team full of international stars. I think, for me, it was one of the best nights that I had with Rangers.
“Of course, also playing against the likes of Bayern Munich and Monaco in the group stage, which we want to have. At that time, we could compete with the top clubs and that was good for us as players and also good as a team and, of course, for the club as well. Good memories in Europe.”
Van Bronckhorst is now tasked with creating new memories with a Rangers squad bidding to reach the knockout phase of the Europa League for a fourth consecutive season.
If they can win by two clear goals over Sparta, then they would secure second place in Group A if Brondby fail to win away to already-qualified leaders Lyon.
The Dutchman has been satisfied with the response of his players during his first training sessions with them this week as he looks to lift them after Sunday’s Premier Sports Cup semi-final defeat against Hibs and start implementing his own methods and tactics on the squad he inherited from Steven Gerrard.
“They work hard, they look very fresh and sharp,” said van Bronckhorst. “That’s what we need against Sparta. So we are well prepared for the game. We go for a good result at home because we want to still be in Europe after Christmas. That’s our main objective.
“We are preparing the boys well for Thursday. Of course, you also take notice of the last game.
“Some things I saw (against Hibs) which I thought we need to improve, all in mind to be better prepared for Sparta.
“That’s always the case for me. If we can improve things, and obviously we have to, then I will take that into account.
“So it’s a little bit of both - looking a little bit back and also to the next game in which areas we need to improve. We have to prepare ourselves tactically for when we have the ball and when we want to win the ball back.
“As I said, I have a certain way of working. There are certain things I expect and want from my players.
“It’s not maybe a change or different. I don’t know how previous managers worked. Gerrard worked in a certain way. I work in a certain way.
“But I demand that we play as a team and do everything we can to play as a team, whether it is defending or attacking.
“We need to be prepared. We have our tasks. The players have their tasks on the pitch, they know. We talked a lot about it in the last couple of days and now we need to execute it tomorrow and make sure we are ready for Prague.”
Rangers have kept just eight clean sheets in their 24 games in all competitions so far this season. The defensive solidity which underscored their Premiership title-winning success has been replaced by a vulnerability which was very much in evidence again against Hibs at Hampden.
Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the issues van Bronckhorst has sought to address over the past few days.
“We weren’t happy with the result or the goals we conceded on Sunday,” added the Dutchman. “So we have to make sure we are defensively much more focused and compact.
“For me, the defending part of the game is for everyone. We trained tactically the last two days to make sure we are well prepared for Sparta Prague.
“The first thing you want to do, not only in Europe but in every game, is to be defensively solid, to keep the zero and try to win the game by scoring goals. That’s the main objective on Thursday, to defend really well and make sure we keep the zero.”
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