Time for Rangers to stand up and be counted in Europe

If the qualifying rounds of the Europa League have taught Scottish football anything in recent years, it is the painful lesson that no tie can be regarded as a formality by clubs from this country any longer.

A litany of embarrassing defeats at the hands of unheralded opponents from the likes of Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Iceland and Luxembourg have underlined Scotland’s dismal plunge down the Uefa coefficient ranking list.

But while taking anything for granted simply isn’t an option these days, both Rangers and Hibs can surely approach their first qualifying round ties next month feeling optimistic they can at least take an initial step towards some credibility on the continental stage.

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Steven Gerrard’s first competitive assignment as Rangers manager will be against Macedonian side Shkupi, while Neil Lennon’s second tilt at Europe with Hibs will begin against Faroe Islands minnows Runavik.

Rangers manager Steven Gerrard's first competitive match will be a Europa League qualifier. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS

Both Scottish teams are favourites to progress and join Aberdeen, who start their campaign in the second qualifying round with a fascinating and stern test against English Premier League outfit Burnley.

The sharpest focus in the first qualifying round will inevitably be upon Gerrard as the former Liverpool and England captain looks to start restoring the reputation and standing of Rangers in Europe.

Last year’s humiliating 2-1 aggregate defeat to Progres Niederkorn of Luxembourg at the same stage of the Europa League, during the chaotic managerial tenure of Pedro Caixinha, represented a new nadir in the Ibrox club’s 62-year European history.

Their support will demand instant evidence of improvement under Gerrard against a Shkupi side who finished fourth in the Macedonian League last season, a massive 40 points behind runaway champions Shkendija.

Shkupi, based in the capital Skopje and who draw much of their support from the country’s Albanian community, were formed in 2012 as part of a merger with Albarsa. They regard themselves as a continuation of Sloga Jugomagnat, three-time Macedonian champions who were expelled by the national association in 2010 for their part in a boycott of domestic football in protest at the election of controversial president Haralampie Hadzi-Risteski.

Sloga played in Europe seven times from 1996 to 2004 but never progressed beyond the second qualifying round. As they return to Europe for the first time under their new guise, Shkupi have an 
ambitious owner in local businessman Shefket Demiri who took control of the club last year.

He has extended Shkupi’s recruitment network, signing Equatorial Guinea international defenders Mariano Ondo and Basilio Ndong earlier this year. Former Hamburg youth playmaker Stephan Vujcic and highly-regarded Kosovan midfielder Rron Broja, who has attracted interest from several Turkish clubs, are likely to feature prominently on any scouting reports carried out by Gerrard.

But Shkupi coach, former Macedonian international defender Zekirija Ramadani, is under no illusions about the size of the task facing his squad who began their pre-season preparations with a 2-0 friendly win over Kosovan champions Drita on Tuesday.

“Rangers were the strongest adversary we would have got from our part of the draw,” said Ramadani. “We must be prepared to represent our club with dignity in Europe. Certainly, miraculous things can happen in football, so we hope for luck and God’s help and perhaps also qualification. But let’s accept that the absolute favourites are Rangers.”

Hibs, who have not won a European tie since overcoming Latvian side Dinaburg in the Intertoto Cup back in 2006-07, should have minimal difficulty in overcoming Runavik. The Faroese outfit have never won a European tie in 11 previous attempts, although they came close against 
Linfield three years ago when they defeated the Belfast club 4-3 at home after a 2-0 loss at Windsor Park.

They finished fourth in the Faroe Islands Premier League last year, their efforts underpinned by prolific striker Klaemint Olsen who is a multiple domestic golden boot winner. Hibs boss Lennon is determined to improve on his first European campaign at the club two years ago when they were unfortunate to lose on penalties to Danish side Brondby in the second qualifying round.

“It’s exciting for the players and the supporters,” said Lennon. “The draw makes it feel a bit more real and something to aim towards. When we knew we’d qualified, the pre-season schedule was confirmed with a view to us being ready for 12 July, and that’s what we need to be.

“Against Brondby it was my first game in charge and we hadn’t had much time to prepare, whereas with these matches the squad is more 
settled and we have the 
experience of those ties to call upon.

“We’ll be up against a side midway through their league season so they’ll obviously be well prepared, so it’s important we get our work in over the coming weeks to get the fitness levels up and try to get a bit of sharpness for the game.

“We can’t afford to be complacent. There are always surprises at this time of the season in Europe – lack of sharpness or focus, playing in tough conditions, or a lack of knowledge on the opposition.

“We need to concentrate on the first set of fixtures and get the job done before any thoughts of what comes after. The first leg is at home and hopefully we’ll see another good turnout at Easter Road – our attendances last season were excellent and we need more of the same for the game against Runavík.”

If Hibs progress, they will face Greek side Asteras Tripolis in the second qualifying round. Fifth in the Greek Super League last season, Asteras reached the group stage of the Europa League in both 2014-15 and 2015-16.

Should Rangers overcome Shkupi, they will take on either Croatian side Osijek or 
Petrocub Hincesti from Moldova in the next round. Osijek, who defeated PSV Eindhoven in the tournament last season, are firm favourites to beat Petrocub who are making their debut in European competition.