Steven Gerrard: Rangers’ added experience can be key to getting out of group

While Rangers took their Europa League group stage campaign to the wire last season, they were eventually undone by a couple of earlier mis-steps on the way to the finishing line.

Midfielder Ryan Jack has recovered from his knee problem and is available for Rangers against Feyenoord. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
Midfielder Ryan Jack has recovered from his knee problem and is available for Rangers against Feyenoord. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS

Drawn games at home to Spartak Moscow and Villarreal proved costly as they ultimately came up short on matchday six away to Rapid Vienna.

As manager Steven Gerrard prepares for the start of this season’s Group G challenge, which he says has a “Champions League feel” with the presence of Feyenoord, Porto and Young Boys in it, he is convinced his Rangers squad are both better equipped and prepared to claim a top two position and progress to the knockout stage.

“We want to compete, we want to show what this club is all about,” said Gerrard ahead of Thursday night’s opener at home to Feyenoord.

“We are at home for the opener, which could be important. We have the opportunity to get off to a really good, positive start by trying to take all three points.

“If we do, it sets us up for game two. We all sat round the canteen at the training ground waiting for the group stage draw last month and when it was made, we spoke about it being a tough group with some good teams in it.

“But I don’t think it’s impossible to get out of the group. To do that, we have to find a consistent level. In Europa League football, you won’t get away with putting in an average performance against these kind of teams, individually or collectively. You will be punished for it.

“If you go back 10 months or so, we were a very inexperienced squad going into Europe. We put that squad together with the budget we had. We had to go out and buy players who were playing under-23 football, players who were out of contract, or players who were at clubs who had never experienced European football before.

“There were probably only two or three players who had experienced Europa League or Champions League football. So I think we did ever 
so well last season, considering how long we had been together.

“We put up a really good fight and came close to getting out of the group. We need to use that disappointment of just missing out – and also the experience of the run we had in the competition – to try and go one better this time.

“It would be a huge step forward if we were to qualify for the next stage, especially from this group.

“With all due respect, it 
certainly goes up a few levels from domestic football. 
Playing against teams like Villarreal and Rapid Vienna, the level goes up.

“I’m sure that will be the case again this year. In the group stage last year, when we maxed out and performed at our best, we got some really positive results.

“We were unlucky not to win away to Villarreal, we played against them at Ibrox with 10 men for 60 minutes, so I was ever so proud with the effort and quality the players showed, even though we fell short in the last game.

“I believe if the players can match that, with the extra bit of quality we’ve got in 
the squad this year, I’m quietly confident we can compete 
to get into the next round.”

Gerrard is boosted by the availability of midfield lynchpin Ryan Jack, fit again after the aggravation of a knee injury while with the Scotland squad, which so irritated his club boss.

Jermain Defoe, pictured, may be doubtful, the veteran striker a notable absentee from training on Wednesday, although top scorer Alfredo Morelos would have been likely to lead the line in any case.

Gerrard is content that Rangers are better able to cope with injury setbacks this season and cope with a relentless few months which will see Thursday Europa League nights followed by crucial Premiership fixtures three days later.

“The schedule is very demanding,” he added. “But It’s not a schedule we are complaining about because it’s what we all want. It’s what the fans want, it’s what the board want, it’s what I want as a manager. The players have echoed that on many occasions. We all want the Thursday-Sunday schedule.

“But we had to prepare a squad for if we qualified. I was confident we could get there, even if it was tough in the qualifiers and it went to the wire. I had to prepare us for Sunday-Thursday over a longer period.

“That’s the reason we have gone for more volume and extra quality in the squad. You’ve seen what’s happened in the last couple of weeks – we’ve lost two players in the same position in Jordan Jones and Ryan Kent.

“But we have an answer for that now. That’s the reason why, if you have ambition to compete both domestically and in Europe, you need at least two good players in each position.”