In a way, it is curious that European football has provided salvation for Rangers in recent times. In 2011, aggregate defeats by Malmö and Maribor at least accelerated financial implosion that crystallised six months later. The 2017 Europa League exit at the hands of Progrès Niederkorn was compounded by the sight of the Rangers manager Pedro Caixinha gesticulating at irate supporters while standing in a bush. A club which prides itself on stature had been reduced to a laughing stock.
With time, and managerial change, has come stark Rangers improvement against foreign opposition. Steven Gerrard oversaw the steady raising of standards in the Europa League before Giovanni van Bronckhorst guided his team to the final last May. A fully deserved playoff victory over PSV Eindhoven returned Rangers to the Champions League while emphasising the theory that this team reserve their best performances for matches away from the domestic scene. Rangers are respected abroad once more; just ask Borussia Dortmund or RB Leipzig.
Rangers have subsequently been reacquainted with the harsh realities associated with the Champions League. They were dreadful in Amsterdam and found themselves 3-0 down inside 35 minutes to Ajax. The Dutch champions showed clemency in scoring only one more. Rangers were markedly better when Napoli visited but a careless red card for James Sands allowed the Italian club all the leeway they required to ease to a 3-0 win. Rangers’ record is thus far the worst of all 32 teams in the group phase. For a club never short of ego, that will sting.
Rangers supporters will claim, not unreasonably, that it is unfair to draw sharp conclusions from matches against the continent’s finest teams. The gap between the haves and have-nots – which include Scottish clubs – has never been wider. Rangers wanted the kudos of the Champions League but must have been quietly aware of the competitive bar.
It is very difficult to assess the status of this Rangers side, to the positive point where it should be no major shock if they add to Liverpool’s problems at Anfield on Tuesday. Their unreliability is both a curse and a cause for light blue hope. Rangers have players who seem to wilt under Scottish heat, where winning is a prerequisite. In Europe, there is more of a tendency to play with freedom. Even Rangers supporters expect little against Liverpool, which represents a situation this team are very rarely in.
Rangers will travel south on the back of their finest domestic showing of the season. The inadequacy of Hearts mattered little to Van Bronckhorst as the visitors recorded a 4-0 win. This came at the end of a spell where Rangers had been in clear, off-field defence mode. John Bennett, the vice-chairman, Stewart Robertson, the managing director, James Bisgrove, the commercial director, and Ross Wilson, the sporting director, took it in turns to raise heads above the parapet in response to legitimate grumbling from a supporter base regularly treated like cash machines in human form.
Wilson, always keen to manage reputation, appears particularly touchy about criticism relating to a series of unconvincing transfer windows. Yet pieced together, the picture is of a club not entirely comfortable in its own skin. It is also of one which has not properly built upon title success delivered by Gerrard in 2021 as Celtic lay on the ropes. Nobody at Rangers has presented appropriate reasoning for that. Bennett, Wilson and others make great play of Rangers’ necessity to succeed; something they have not done nearly enough of, despite relatively vast outlay, over umpteen years.
Van Bronckhorst chooses not to address or criticise bigger pictures. As a former Rangers player, he is in tune with the demands of the club. The 47-year-old also has an obvious, quiet confidence in his coaching ability. One assumes Ryan Kent, out of contract in the summer, will relish the opportunity to put on some kind of show against his former club. Antonio Colak, the pick of Rangers’ summer signings, and Alfredo Morelos are capable in front of goal.
The forward intent of the full-backs James Tavernier and Borna Barisic will be well known to Jürgen Klopp. Rangers’ weakness comes in the form of a routinely one-paced midfield which, in turn, applies pressure to an average defence. Ross County will not expose it; Ajax will. It is a common criticism from fans that Van Bronckhorst’s team, including against the dross of Scotland’s Premiership, are a dull watch; they can afford to be at Anfield, but they need midfielders who can snuff out danger before it reaches a questionable backline.
Rangers are a club and team with split personality. At their very best, they have it within themselves to rock Liverpool. They already know what transpires if they fall well short of such a level.