Why Rangers' 55th title win could be a financial game changer

Steven Gerrard has spoken of his determination to ensure his players ‘don’t get ahead of themselves’ as Rangers close in on the Scottish Premiership crown.

Alfredo Morelos scores in a Europa League match against Young Boys at Ibrox in December 2019. The Swiss club are among the potential opponents for Rangers in next season's Champions League qualifiers. (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)

While Gerrard’s desire to stay rooted in the moment is understandable, nothing the Rangers manager can do or say will prevent his club’s supporters from casting their minds forward to the celebrations which would accompany a title triumph perhaps coveted more than any other.

After a decade spent largely in the doldrums, Rangers are charting a course which could lead them all the way back to the promised land of the Champions League group stage for the first time since the 2010-11 season.

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Even though Gerrard may regard it as premature to start making projections about how his team could get there, the possibilities are tantalising for Rangers thanks to Scotland’s vastly improved UEFA coefficient ranking.

Steven Gerrard scores for Liverpool from the penalty spot against Ludogorets at Anfield in a Champions League match in 2014. The Bulgarian club are possible opponents for Gerrard's Rangers side in next season's qualifiers. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Ready to take the ‘champions path’

With two places in the Champions League qualifiers restored for the 2021-22 campaign, Rangers would earn a shot at making it to the lucrative group phase even if they finish runners-up in the Premiership this season.

But winning their domestic title, which increasingly appears a fait accompli with a 20 point lead over Celtic who have two games in hand, will provide a significant boost for Rangers’ prospects of Champions League progress.

They will enter the ‘champions path’ section of the qualifiers which is a notionally less hazardous route to the group stage, albeit the one on which Celtic have slipped up against Ferencvaros, Cluj and AEK Athens in their last three attempts to get there.

Kenny Miller scores for Rangers against Bursaspor in Turkey on December 7, 2010 - the last time the Ibrox club played a group stage match in the Champions League. (Photo by SNS Group).

Thanks to that enhanced UEFA coefficient, for which Rangers have made a major contribution with their admirably consistent Europa League form since Gerrard’s appointment in 2018, the Scottish champions will enter the qualifiers at a later stage next season.

It means Rangers would be just two ties away from the group stage with their campaign kicking off in the third qualifying round.

Possible opponents emerging

While the likely identity of domestic league winners around Europe may fluctuate between now and May, it is already possible to form a reasonable assumption of who will stand between Rangers and a place in the group stage.

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They would be one of 12 clubs in the ‘champions path’ third qualifying round where, as things stand, they would be one of the unseeded teams. The six seeded clubs, if current domestic league placings are maintained, are forecast to be Olympiacos, Dinamo Zagreb, Slavia Prague, Young Boys, Red Star Belgrade and Ludogorets.

While none of those six enjoy quite as healthy a lead as Rangers in their title races, they are all hot favourites to become champions in Greece, Croatia, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Serbia and Bulgaria respectively.

But intriguingly for Rangers, currently projected to be the highest ranked of the six unseeded clubs, five of those seeded teams will be starting their campaigns earlier in the tournament. Dinamo Zagreb and Ludogorets begin in the first qualifying round, while Olympiacos, Young Boys and Red Star Belgrade enter the fray in the second qualifying round.

It would therefore only require one of those five to slip up in the earlier rounds for Rangers to be promoted to seeded status in the third qualifying round. For Gerrard’s team, that could mean a tie against theoretically less daunting opponents such as Maribor of Slovenia or Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova.

Steven Gerrard's prospects of leading Rangers to the group stage of the Champions League next season could be enhanced by seeded status in the third qualifying round. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

If Rangers do clear their first hurdle and reach the play-off round, they are all but certain to be unseeded. The degree of difficulty may rise significantly, with Austrian heavyweights Red Bull Salzburg slated to be the top ranked club entering at that stage.

No fear in Europe under Gerrard

But regardless of what the draw has in store, Rangers will go into the qualifiers buoyed by the renewed credibility and sense of self-assurance they have garnered on the European stage under Gerrard’s guidance.

Having inherited a squad responsible for the most humiliating result in Rangers’ European history when eliminated from the Europa League in the first qualifying round by Luxembourg minnows Progres Niederkorn in 2017, Gerrard has brought back the shine to that tarnished continental reputation.

So far, Rangers have lost just five of the 41 Europa League matches they have played during his tenure. In 11 qualifying ties, Gerrard has yet to taste defeat in even a single leg - a trend which augurs well for the Champions League challenge ahead.

Reaching the group stage of the Europa League in each of his three seasons so far has not only restored Rangers’ prestige, it has played a major part in the financial rehabilitation of the club.

In 2018-19, Europa League football accounted for £14.3 million of Rangers’ turnover, while last season that figure rose to £20 million.

A financial game changer

As Rangers try to move to a financial model which does not see them rely on the ongoing largesse of investors such as chairman Douglas Park and vice-chairman John Bennett, reaching the group stage of the Champions League next season would be transformative.

When Celtic were last there, in 2017-18, they posted record revenue of £101.6 million, of which just under £30 million came from UEFA prize money alone.

Rangers have invested significant amounts in strengthening a first team squad for which the confirmed wage bill last season was £29.7 million and is believed to be closer to around £40 million this season.

The value of Gerrard’s squad has also increased exponentially which will allow Rangers to improve their balance sheet with the sale of some players for considerable profit in the coming years.

But the most prized entry in their ledger would be the one that signifies they are back in the group stage of Europe’s elite club competition.

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