Why Rangers reaching Seville would be a greater achievement than the Celtic class of 2003

It seems almost unreal to be able to consider what the magnitude of the achievement would be were Rangers to earn themselves a pilgrimage to Seville for a European final.

Such a jaunt has obvious resonance in the annals of the Scottish game after Celtic enjoyed such an occasion in 2003. Their UEFA Cup final appearance in Andalusia then, when they lost out 3-2 in extra-time to Jose Mourinho’s Porto team that the very next season would go on to claim the big cup - or Champions League, if you prefer - ended a 26-year wait for a Scotland club to contest a continental decider. It appeared then that the feat would be an outlier, with the status of the game in this country having so comprehensively contracted since Dundee United were bested by IFK Goteborg in the then two-legged 1987 UEFA Cup final. That did not prove to be the case, of course, owing to Rangers, a mere five years later, finding themselves in Manchester for the 2008 UEFA Cup final they were powerless to prevent Zenit St Petersburg triumphing in 2-0.

Most sage commentators considered that in these early decades of the third millennium that was sure to be that when it came to Scottish clubs coming as close to landing a major European honour. The exploits of Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s men in recent months have forced a rethink. Somehow, while serving up thrills and spills by the bucketload, they are within one more unforgettable night at Ibrox of becoming the first Scottish club to contest the showpiece of the continent’s second string tournament that now goes under the branding of the Europa League. The past decade has witnessed the financial power in the game, and the rewards to be generated from the attendant advantages, becoming more concentrated within the big five leagues of England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France than ever before. Clubs outside of this cartel require to negotiate more games than ever before to make deep inroads into cross-border competition. The sum of these factors seemed to add up to European finals being closed off to nations such as Scotland.

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Rangers have defied all manner of odds, then, simply to be in a position where they could settle their Europa League semi-final against RB Leipzig in their favour by overturning a 1-0 first leg deficit on home soil. If they do, all bets are off as to whether this would stand as the most meritorious achievement on the continent by a Scottish club since the 2000s. In that event, the judgement call to be made would be between two Seville-staged finals. Much as the Ibrox men’s run to the 2008 decider - masterminded by the late, great Walter Smith - was fantastical, a triumph of spirit, nay sheer bloodymindedness, the suffocating nature of the defensive football demanded to make it a reality means it cannot be as beloved as what Martin O’Neill’s Celtic pulled off in 2003. Both runs - as with Rangers’ path to potential glory this season - ensued from dropping out of the Champions League, the Ibrox side just falling short in the group stages to which their rivals had failed to gain access.

There the similarities largely end, with Rangers posting only two wins, and scoring only five goals, across the nine games of the knock-out stages, which included the final. Not that they, in any way, had it easy. The penalty shoot-out semi-final success over Fiorentina may have been the product of three-and-a-half hours without a goal across the tie. It was, though, reward for having eliminated Sporting Lisbon, Werder Bremen and Panathiakos in the previous knock-out rounds. That represents a commendable quartet of scalps.

In contrast, Celtic - starting much earlier, it should be recognised - scored in all 13 of their UEFA Cup games. Accounting for Liverpool, Stuttgart, Celta Vigo and Blackburn Rovers in the latter stages, four teams from the big five leagues, they bagged five wins and 17 goals.

Yet, if Rangers get the job done against Leipzig, then there is a powerful case for saying they will deserve greater credit for progressing to a European final than O’Neill’s men.

Two aspects would account for that. Frankly, Celtic were vastly superior to the current Ibrox team. Aside from swapping Allan McGregor for Robert Douglas, no player from Rangers now would be certain to break into a XI selected from the two squads. Such as Alfredo Morelos, James Tavernier, Connor Goldson and Ryan Kent would have their backers but, really, they pale against their Celtic counterparts. Yet, the fact Celtic had a world-class player in Henrik Larsson, and true top level operators - many bought for considerable sums - such as Chris Sutton, Stylian Petrov, Paul Lambert, Neil Lennon, John Hartson, Alan Thompson and Johan Mjällby, places them a class apart. As a result, though, making such headway in Europe wasn’t the leap it has been for the current, relatively, modestly-assembled Rangers. Moreover, when Celtic succumbed to Porto, the Portuguese became the third team in four years from outside the big five leagues to lift the trophy. The very different landscape now is reflected in the fact that all past 12 winners of the Europa League have hailed from the continent’s most exalted quintet of set-ups. If van Bronckhorst’s men are in Seville next month - through seeing off Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Braga and Red Star Belgrade post-Christmas courtesy of displays of attacking verve when such was essential - it will be a Scottish football rags-to-riches tale for the modern age .

Celtic and Porto players line up ahead of the 2003 UEFA Cup final in Seville.
Rangers captain James Tavernier before the Europa League semi-final first leg defeat to RB Leipzig. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)
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