As European group-stage football returns to Ibrox for the first time in eight years, there are plenty of reasons for Rangers and their supporters to approach the occasion in buoyant mood.
The valuable point earned on matchday one away to Villarreal in Group G of the Europa League has given Steven Gerrard’s side a platform to mount a serious bid for progress to the knockout phase if they can follow it up with victory at home to Rapid Vienna tonight.
But the feelgood factor Gerrard has generated around the club since his appointment as manager was dented with a degree of significance for perhaps the first time by the dismal performance in losing 1-0 at Livingston on Sunday.
In a job where managing expectations is every bit as challenging as getting the best out of the players at his disposal, Gerrard agrees it was a result which brought a fresh sense of perspective to the current stage of Rangers’ development under his guidance.
“It brings us down to earth a little bit,” he admitted. “At the same time, we haven’t got time to dwell on it, or drag into this game against Rapid.
“When you are putting small runs together, wins and performances like we had, it’s only natural that expectations grow. Certain people get carried away. But I won’t because I know it’s a long season.
“I’ve said it many times before, there will be bumps in the road, there will be setbacks and a dip in form. It happens. The important thing for me is that we all stick together. We need to be humble when we are in a really good place and at the same time not beat ourselves up too much when we lose.
“There is a lot of football still to be played, all our objectives are still there to be achieved. Nothing disastrous has happened.
“We achieved something for the club in qualifying for the group stage in Europe but, at the same time, we haven’t really achieved anything as a team. There is no excuse for people getting carried away.
“Sometimes, as a manager, you need to take a step back. You need to come away from it and look in. Find out if you have good people in your dressing room with the right mentality.
“Normally, if you have the wrong dressing room with the wrong people, those people will start pointing fingers, they’ll look to shift the blame. The people I want to work with are the ones who look in the mirror and say, ‘that was me, I played my part, I need to sort myself out.’
“I saw plenty of that after Sunday and I did it myself. Myself and my staff have analysed what went wrong. If we hadn’t done that and the players hadn’t done that, then we wouldn’t have been true to ourselves.”
Rangers have an opportunity to restore positive momentum to the Gerrard project if they can maintain their impressive home form and secure victories against Rapid tonight and then Premiership leaders Hearts at Ibrox on Sunday.
“Hearts is huge for us,” added Gerrard. “Obviously all my focus is on Rapid right now but Hearts is really big because it is the last game before we go away for two weeks. The last thing we want is to go into the international break and have two weeks of frustration because we didn’t get the result we want.
“There is no getting away from it. Hearts are top of the league and have a bit of a gap, so it is important we try and reel them back in. But obviously a European game at Ibrox needs all our focus and attention first of all, before we worry about Hearts.
“I’ve got decisions to make for both games. When the team doesn’t perform and players don’t perform, as was the case at Livingston, you have got decisions to make. I will pick the two teams I think are strong enough to get both jobs done. I won’t prioritise any game. I’ll go in full strength both games, as strong as we can go. I’ve got confidence and belief in my players. It’s the reason why I brought the new players in and why I kept those who were already here.
“I have belief that they are a good team and a good squad. But the test and the challenge for us is can we cope? Because there are a lot of games. I understand how difficult a challenge it is with the amount of fixtures. They are slapping us right in the face every few days. But we have to cope and give it everything we have.”
Rapid have won only one of their last nine European away fixtures and have been in turmoil this season, sacking manager Goran Djuricin following a third successive league defeat at the weekend. He has been replaced by Dietmar Kuhbauer, a club legend as a player, and Gerrard is wary of the immediate impact he may make.
“He will definitely give them a lift after a difficult few weeks,” said Gerrard.
“Anything can happen with a new boss in terms of formation and tactics. We’ll have to think quick on our feet when we get their team lines before kick-off. We’ll need to be on our toes to work out if they will sit back or do they think they can take us on toe-to-toe.”