The end game for Steven Gerrard at Rangers is bringing Champions League football to Ibrox again – and all that would mean. He believes his first European adventure will provide him an inkling of what that would entail when Maribor roll up to Govan on Thursday night for the first leg of the clubs’ Europa League third-round qualifier.
The former Liverpool and England captain believes that his team ousted a top-class side in progressing to this stage following the midweek 1-1 draw with Croatians Osijek. Maribor, though, have an added dimension, which he believes could work in his favour when he begins to plan for the tie following his side’s Premiership opener at Aberdeen this afternoon. The Slovenians are the slayers of Scottish teams in European competition in eliminating Rangers and Celtic from the Champions League, and Hibernian and Aberdeen from the Europa League in the past nine years.
“I am aware of Maribor’s record and they are a good side,” he said. “For me, they are a Champions League team. It’s a big test for us but we are growing and improving. The test got an awful lot harder from Shkupi to Osijek [between the first and second qualifying round] and we embraced it and delivered. We will go and try to get that step further but it will be tough as they have good footballers.
“It’s difficult to judge [if Maribor are better than Osijek]. Osijek have some wonderful footballers. But Maribor will have more European experience.
“I have a slight advantage when it comes to Maribor as I watched Liverpool play them twice last season [in the Champions League, where they lost 7-0 and 3-0]. I also have big help around the club in terms of analysts, who will be involved. We will watch Maribor at the weekend and also look back at their previous European games. After Aberdeen, we will have plenty of time to prepare for the tie.”
Success against Maribor would have Gerrard, pictured, requiring to lean heavily on his sports science team as it would set the club up for nine games between now and their trip to Celtic Park on 2 September, an exacting programme for a newly assembled team. Gerrard says it explains why he is looking to bring in “two more” players in short order to take his signing splurge up to 12 for the summer.
The need to play Thursday/Sunday when he is both feeling his way in management and gelling a new group, he won’t bemoan.
“They are all big games coming up but when I sit down with individuals on a daily basis, we speak about that,” he said. “You are at Rangers because you want to play in big games – European nights and Aberdeen away. If you are successful, the downside is that there are games all the time.
“But you should want that. You should want to be involved in big games and mentally you should be up for it. We have enough numbers to cope but what’s important is that players who aren’t selected for one game, stay positive. They can’t sulk. They need to stay positive and take it into the next game.
“I always felt better when I was in a rhythm of games. If I missed a few games or was injured, I went out of my flow. It was never a problem having lots of fixtures. As a player, the joy for me was always the game. It wasn’t necessarily the Monday to Friday – it was the Saturday.
“It was the same when I went away with England. I loved the games but not the ten days around them. Our players should be the same. They should see these games as an opportunity to go and show how good they are.”
However, coping with the many competing demands made of him as a manager across a relentless opening few months in his new role isn’t without its challenges, Gerrard concedes.
“I kicked every ball against Osijek,” the 38-year-old said. “Listen, it’s different but in terms of the buzz of being around a big club and having that pressure and responsibility I’m loving it. I’m enjoying it. It is a crazy world. You take it home with you, you’re not getting much time to rest and come away from it because you are always preparing for that next game. I just need to get the balance right of doing my job properly but realising I have a family too.
“If I’m judging myself in terms of emotion then I’m getting a little bit too carried away at the moment. But it’s called passion, I think. Sometimes I have to go back, take a deep breath and re-start… I apologise for that.”