This time 10 years ago, Rangers had only just started life in the bottom tier of Scottish football. Financial meltdown forced the historic club to join the Third Division with a 2-2 draw away to Peterhead on the shores of the North Sea on the opening day of the 2012/13 season hinting at the further struggles to come.
There were surely times when Rangers fans doubted their club would ever make it back to the top of the Scottish game, but 2021 saw them celebrate winning the Scottish Premiership title. Rangers achieved something even more notable last season by reaching the final of the Europa League. Now, they are on the brink of taking another step forward.
Rangers face Union Saint-Gilloise in the third qualifying round for this season’s Champions League with Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s team just four matches away from appearing in Europe’s most prestigious club competition for the first time since 2011. Champions League qualification would be the ultimate proof of Rangers’ resurgence.
Expectations are high after last season’s run to the Europa League final. In 2008, there was an element of fluke to Rangers’ run to the UEFA Cup final, but this was not the case for van Bronckhorst’s side as they saw off Borussia Dortmund, Red Star Belgrade, Braga and RB Leipzig before losing to Eintracht Frankfurt.
Indeed, Rangers proved they belong at a high level of European football and now they have the chance to prove they belong at the highest level. Van Bronckhorst is putting his own stamp on the team he inherited from Steven Gerrard even after the loss of two key figures in Joe Aribo and Calvin Bassey this summer.
Van Bronckhorst made smart use of his squad as Rangers reached last season’s Europa League final, toggling between a proactive and conservative approach on a match-to-match basis. The most impressive thing about this was the Dutchman frequently made this change while utilising the same players.
This was particularly clear in the impressive semi-final win over RB Leipzig when van Bronckhorst set up his team to stay compact and defend in the away leg before asking them to attack and play an expansive game in the home leg – Rangers fielded the same starting lineup in both matches.
Champions League competition will require van Bronckhorst to be at his sharpest in terms of his tactics. Rangers have a strong team and squad, but they will still be relative underdogs in the tournament, should they qualify for the group stages. This is where the true test of their manager will come.
“It’s the pinnacle of football and the place every player wants to play,” said Rangers’ vice-captain Connor Goldson ahead of the qualifier against Union Saint-Gilloise. “Champions League football has been a part of the agenda for the last few years. Obviously last year we weren’t able to make it, so hopefully this year we can and over the next few years we can play Champions League football.”
Of course, Celtic already know they will participate in the group stages of this season’s Champions League with the winners of the Scottish Premiership gaining automatic qualification and it would underline the rising quality of the sport north of the border. Scottish clubs are making their mark in Europe.
Union Saint-Gilloise have already proven themselves as challenging opponents, winning the first leg 2-0. They came close to winning the Belgian title last season and have the quality to qualify for the Champions League themselves. But Rangers have already shown under van Bronckhorst that they can handle high-pressure matches like the ones they are now facing to qualify for the Champions League.