Why Rangers fans can dare to dream of further Europa League glory
The road to Seville looks to have opened up invitingly for Rangers after a Europa League draw ceremony on Friday which could scarcely have worked out better had they stage-managed it themselves.
But, privately at least, the Rangers manager may share at least a degree of the fevered excitement building among his club’s support over the prospects of the Scottish champions going all the way to the final at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium on May 18.
If they can overcome Braga, they will face a semi-final against either RB Leipzig of Germany or Italian side Atalanta. Both are clearly formidable outfits and Rangers would be regarded as the outsiders in a match-up against either.
But with van Bronckhorst’s team drawn to play the second leg at Ibrox, as they will against Braga, the conditions are unquestionably as propitious as they could hope for. Staying on the opposite side of the draw to tournament favourites Barcelona, who play Eintracht Frankfurt in the last eight while West Ham United take on Lyon, has to be regarded as a significant boost to Rangers’ prospects of reaching a European final for the fifth time in their history.
Braga, of course, will sense a similar opportunity and are probably just as content with the draw. Europa League finalists in 2011, when they lost 1-0 to compatriots Porto in Dublin, this is their first appearance in the quarter-finals since 2016.
They were eliminated in the last 32 of the tournament in the previous two seasons, including a defeat at the hands of Rangers in the only prior meeting of the clubs two years ago. The Ibrox side recovered from 2-0 down to win the first leg 3-2 at home before completing the job when Ryan Kent scored the only goal of the return fixture at Braga’s picturesque Municipal Stadium.
This season, Braga finished runners-up in their Europa League group behind the Red Star Belgrade side whom Rangers have just beaten 4-2 on aggregate in the last 16. Having needed a penalty shoot-out to overcome Moldovan champions Sheriff Tiraspol in the knockout round play-offs, Braga enjoyed an impressive 3-1 aggregate win over Monaco in their last 16 tie.
Managed by vastly experienced 56-year-old Carlos Carvalhal, who had spells in charge of Sheffield Wednesday and Swansea City, Braga are currently fourth in the Primeira Liga – a massive 24 points adrift of the pace being set in the title race by leaders Porto.
Braga’s most influential player is their captain Ricardo Horta, a right-sided attacking midfielder who has been with them since 2016. The 27-year-old is their leading scorer this season with 19 goals in all competitions. But the loss of Brazilian winger Wenderson Galeno to Porto in a €9 million deal in January weakened the creative options in the Braga squad.
All told, it’s a tie Rangers have the tools to win as they look to continue their increasingly confident progression in Europe under van Bronckhorst. Those supporters already booking flights and accommodation for Seville in May certainly believe as much.
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