European finals are not to be sniffed at. Why else would Rangers fans prepare a tifo display urging the Ibrox players to “make us dream”? Even reaching the last four is not supposed to happen. A final appearance would seem like a fairytale in this day and age. The Ibrox club are now two games away from one.
A Scottish club has been involved in such a showpiece occasion only four times since league reconstruction in the mid-1970s – you need to be comfortably in your forties to have any memory of Aberdeen’s Cup-Winners’ Cup triumph in Gothenburg 40 years ago next May .
Even the last time it happened, in Manchester 14 years ago, it seemed like a freak, never-to-be-repeated occurrence. Football was getting less inclusive with every passing year. This wasn’t an arena for Scottish clubs any longer, not the latter stages at least. Rangers’ efforts under the late Walter Smith were, even then, considered superlative.
News that Uefa were creating a third tier of European competition in the form of the Conference League perhaps offered some hope. But even the last four of the inaugural edition is made up of clubs still regarded as sizeable: Leicester City, Rome, Marseille and Feyenoord. If they don’t have stature, they at least have the budget.
Rangers and Celtic cannot even compete with Leicester City in terms of finances. So what Rangers are doing in the Europa League, after last season’s excellent progress to the last 16, deserves more than simple applause. It is a monumental achievement. What’s more, they are in style.
The Europa League might be the poor relation to the Champions League but it retains considerable glamor and is competitive enough to have ejected Barcelona and Lyon at the last eight stage. This is a serious competition and Rangers are serious contenders ahead of the semi-final against RB Leipzig.
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Van Bronckhorst has become just the fifth Rangers manager to lead the Ibrox side into the last four of a European tournament. Smith was the last man. Even he used to smile when recalling the dogged way his team made progress in 2008 before suddenly finding themselves in the final at the then City of Manchester stadium.
Rangers battled to the final against Zenit St Petersburg playing a brand of football that even the most ardent fan would not pretend was pleasing to the eye. It had its moments, of course. Steven Whittaker’s slaloming run from his own half to score his side’s second goal at Sporting Lisbon remains a vivid memory. But it was a brand of attritional, if tactically astute, football that saw Rangers negotiate a way past the likes of Fiorentina before falling at the final hurdle against Dick Advocaat’s Zenit side amid rather shameful city center scenes in Manchester.
Much drama was to follow. Although further domestic titles arrived, it did have the feel of a last hurrah – certainly on the European stage. Qualification for the Champion League group stage – and then Europa League last 16 – under Smith was also commendable before a five-year hiatus as Rangers started the long road back from the bottom division. It makes what is happening now even more special, particularly when the return to European football initially proved so traumatic. Luxembourg to Leipzig is really worthy of the label “The Journey”. Van Bronckhorst believes the adventure can continue one step further – and then who knows?
After all, Rangers have already beaten tournament favorites Borussia Dortmund.
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