Group stage has been Steven Gerrard’s Rangers target from start

Rangers forward Alfredo Morelos, centre, is all smiles in training ahead of the club's Europa League play-off tie versus Ufa. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
Rangers forward Alfredo Morelos, centre, is all smiles in training ahead of the club's Europa League play-off tie versus Ufa. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
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If Rangers can make it to the group stage of a European tournament for the first time in eight years, it will be no mean achievement for Steven Gerrard in his fledgling managerial career.

It’s a prize which many supporters of the Ibrox club would probably have regarded as a bonus this season, seeking as their priority a return to domestic credibility under the former Liverpool and England captain.

But as the man himself now stands on the verge of a place in next week’s Europa League group stage draw, with the first leg of the play-off round tie against Russian side Ufa in Glasgow tonight, he insists it was always his primary objective.

“It wouldn’t be a bonus for me,” said Gerrard. “Even the board made it very clear to me, when I sat down with them at the start, that it was a big target, a very important target.

“One reason is because they believe, and I believe, that Rangers should be playing European football. With what the fans give us on a weekly basis, they deserve to have a journey in Europe. All the players that I have brought in and signed made it very clear to me that they wanted to experience European football.

“Also, from my point of view, it’s part of the pressure and responsibility as the Rangers manager. It also helps the club and the board from a financial point of view.”

After successfully overcoming three Balkan challengers in the first three qualifying rounds, with Macedonian side Shkupi, Osijek of Croatia and Slovenian side Maribor accounted for, European newcomers Ufa present the final hurdle for Gerrard’s men.

The previously unheralded club, from the Russian republic of Bashkortostan, were only formed in 2010. They beat Domzale of Slovenia on away goals in the second qualifying round before squeezing past Progres Niederkorn, the Luxembourg minnows who humbled Rangers last year, 4-3 on aggregate with a stoppage time goal last week.

Ufa lost 3-0 to Dinamo Moscow in a Russian Premier League fixture on Monday night but Gerrard is reading very little into that result.

“First and foremost we have to respect that they are in the same position as us,” he added. “They have the chance to beat us in a play-off scenario to get European football. I know that will be their priority. They made six changes to their starting line-up on Monday night, which tells me they were desperate to rest players and make sure they are fresh for this game.

“They will come with a threat. They play on the counter attack and certainly will at Ibrox. We are aware of the formation they’ll probably play and the personnel. They will be very similar to Osijek and Maribor in terms of being a good team, but also having weaknesses that we can exploit if we play to our 
maximum.

“We’ve been fine with getting information on Ufa. We have footage of their last six games. We have been on that process for quite a while and I’ve been on it for a few days. So we are well aware of their strengths and weaknesses. As I say, they deserve respect. But for me it is all about Rangers. If we play to our potential and maximum, I am confident we can get the result.”

Gerrard will again urge his players to tap into the atmosphere created by another big Ibrox crowd as Rangers try to forge a significant advantage to take with them to the second leg in Ufa next Thursday.

“That’s a massive factor for us,” he said. “We’ve spoken about trying to make Ibrox a stadium we own. By that, I mean the fans taking the roof off and us getting on that wave of emotion to try to play to our maximum, to get that intensity that visiting teams struggle to cope with.

“I thought in the home game in the last round against Maribor, for 20 minutes, we were outstanding. We then came off it a bit for 15 to 20 minutes. If we can eradicate that period when step off the gas, then that will be the almost perfect performance we are looking for at Ibrox. If we can get anywhere close to that, then most teams will struggle coming here.”

In addition to the long-term loss of Jamie Murphy following confirmation of the serious knee injury suffered by the winger, Rangers will again be without midfielder Lassana Coulibaly tonight as his recovery from a thigh problem takes longer than first anticipated.

“It’s difficult to say when Lassana will be back,” said Gerrard. “It’s not a major injury but it’s one we’ll have to be patient with. It’s going to be a case of building him back up on a daily basis but he won’t be involved on Thursday night.”