Could “Wattenaccio” be on the cusp of a comeback? Steven Gerrard wouldn’t be averse to the idea. The phrase coined during Rangers’ passage to the 2008 UEFA Cup final summed up former manager Walter Smith’s defensively dogged approach to beating European opponents of a higher calibre.
It wasn’t pretty to watch at times – even Lionel Messi was sneering about Rangers’ unwavering commitment to keeping the back door shut – but it was undoubtedly effective.
Smith and Gerrard may be aligned with opposite halves of the Merseyside divide but that doesn’t mean the current Rangers boss would not be willing to take a leaf out of his predecessor’s book as he looks to navigate Rangers safely through a daunting Europa League last 32 tie against Portuguese side Braga.
“Well, Walter is a hero of mine,” smiled Gerrard upon mention of the tactics that served Rangers so well a dozen years ago. “Cup football over two legs is different to knock-out and group stage football. You maybe have to adapt your strategy. You don’t have to be gung-ho and open.”
By a quirk of the draw, back in 2008 the Ibrox side played the first leg at home in each of their four knock-out rounds. Traditional thinking had always been that it was better to save home advantage for the return match but Rangers made the circumstances work in their favour.
Strangling the life out of the match in each of the first legs, they racked up four consecutive clean sheets en route from the last 32 to the final. It made life easier in each away match when their opponents were then the ones carrying the burden of having to make something happen.
Given Rangers’ current domestic struggles, Gerrard appeared somewhat relieved that he is welcoming Braga to Ibrox this week rather than for the return match when supporters’ nerves could influence his players in a negative fashion.
“I actually think this time round I am quite happy that the first game is at home,” he said. “If you think about where we are right now, I am not sure I would pick [to have the second leg at home] if I had the opportunity.
“If we had to win the game or win it by more than one goal, the crowd could get a bit nervous and edgy. Whereas if we can find a performance that we are capable of and manage to keep a clean sheet at home then that would be the minimum I would like.
“A clean sheet gives you a good chance in the second leg. If we can get our noses in front then the problem becomes their problem.”
The man who captained Liverpool to Champions League success in 2005 doesn’t need lessons on how to succeed in knock-out football.
But having studied at the feet of managerial luminaries Fabio Capello, inset, and Rafael Benitez, he has picked up valuable pointers along the way.
“I think you have to be incredibly organised out of possession,” he added. “Because if you are not, players at this level will hurt you and hurt you badly.
“So before you worry about creating and scoring you have to be disciplined and organised. I have worked for managers like Capello and Benitez and that’s what they are the world best for.
“That’s why I had a lot of success as a player in Europe.
“Going into these two ties, if we are not on the money out of possession, in our organisation and doing it together, then we could have some issues and complications.
“We are going to have to be spot-on in both sides of the game to get success over the two legs.”
Having beaten Porto earlier in the season, logic suggests Braga – 16 points behind their domestic rivals heading into this weekend’s fixtures – ought to present less of a challenge for Rangers.
Gerrard, though, wouldn’t entertain that notion.
“We will have to be at our ultimate best to progress through this because this is a real stern challenge for us,” he warned. “Bookmakers would probably make Braga favourites but that’s totally fine with us.
“The level is about to go up [compared to] the group stage. People might find that a bit of a surprise because we were in a group with Porto who were obviously very competitive.
“This is a good team, full of really technical good players, Brazilian players. But they’ve also got some grit and steel about them as well.
“In the footage I’ve watched so far they are very similar to Porto in style and the amount of technical players that they have.
“We’ve done ever so well to earn this opportunity. Obviously given the form we are in right now, this game is going to be one hell of a challenge for us.”
This has been a difficult month for Gerrard since the end of the winter break, with Rangers falling away in their pursuit of the league title.
In a perverse way, though, having European football after Christmas has vindicated his decision not to sacrifice Continental acclaim for putting everything into stopping Celtic winning nine-in-a-row.
“I said at the start of the season when I was asked if I would put all my eggs in one basket and focus domestically instead of Europe, that you can’t do that at a club like this,” he added.
“You have to basically commit to everything and do your best to be successful in every competition. And I have relished the whole journey so far.
“I am not going to say I’ve not enjoyed the job, just because I have had some indifferent results. That’s part and parcel of being the Rangers manager. There are going to be ups and downs.
“But as a player and manager, if European football doesn’t excite you, you are in the wrong sport.
“We have played the Feyenoords and Portos and had the chance to qualify and compete against big clubs, so that has to excite you.”