Scottish football may have become sadly inured to its once-proud European reputation being diminished by a series of previously unthinkable results in recent years. Just when it seemed no deeper depths of humiliation could be plumbed, however, Rangers dismally contrived to prove otherwise last night in a tiny nation state which has a smaller population than Glasgow.
The Ibrox club’s 2-0 defeat by Progres Niederkorn – a club which finished fourth in Luxembourg’s domestic league last season and had never previously won a European tie – can safely be labelled as the worst in Scotland’s 62-year continental club competition history. There has been no shortage of red faces in Europe in recent years, of course, with Aberdeen, Falkirk, St Johnstone and Hearts being eliminated by teams from Latvia, Liechtenstein, Armenia and Malta respectively. Pedro Caixinha and his players, though, have surely just scraped their way to the bottom of that particular barrel.
The credibility of Rangers’ Portuguese manager, who has been backed by the club in the transfer market this summer, has received a shattering blow. Even allowing for the ill-advised nature of knee-jerk reactions in such circumstances, it is a wound from which Caixinha may never recover.
Managers have successfully bounced back from painful European defeats before. Gordon Strachan’s trophy-laden tenure at Celtic, after kicking off with a startling loss to the unheralded Artmedia Bratislava, springs quickly to mind. The significant difference, of course, is that Strachan arrived at Celtic with a reputation and standing in the game which earned him the respect and time necessary to overcome such a shattering early setback.
Caixinha has nothing on his CV to suggest he will receive the same kind of leeway. Having had the last two and a half months of last season to assess the squad he inherited from Mark Warburton, he was expected by Rangers supporters to hit the ground running in a campaign which marked their club’s return to European football after a six-year absence. Last night’s mortifying defeat will not be easily forgiven by a fan base whose loyalty over the most testing period in the club’s history has been stretched to breaking point.
Caixinha’s ambition of achieving Europa League group stage football this season always appeared a long shot, given that Rangers would be unseeded for the remaining three qualifying rounds they needed to negotiate. Falling at the first hurdle against a team 436th in the Uefa rankings, however, has placed a wretched stain on Caixinha’s image.
Rangers have experienced European embarrassment before, of course. In their first tie after reaching the Uefa Cup final in 2008, they were eliminated from the Champions League in their first tie of the qualifiers by Lithuanian side FBK Kaunas. That was compensated for by Walter Smith and his players as they proceeded to win the first of three consecutive domestic titles in the last successful spell the club enjoyed before its financial meltdown in 2012.
While it is clearly embryonic days for Caixinha and his radically reshaped squad this summer, there is nothing to suggest he is capable of producing a similarly positive response to last night’s catastrophic failure. Unless St Johnstone or Aberdeen can succeed where Rangers failed last night – and the Perth club are already trailing as they travel to Lithuania for the second leg of their Europa League tie tomorrow – then Celtic are once again set to be left alone to carry Scottish football’s increasingly tattered banner into Europe this season.
Caixinha had spoken before last week’s first leg against Progres of his desire to not only restore Rangers’ European fortunes, but to assist the country’s co-efficient ranking, by which Scottish clubs have been consigned to the ranks of Uefa also-rans in recent years. Instead, he has overseen a result which is arguably both the worst in Rangers’ history and that of any Scottish club in Europe.