Their Champions League qualifying round loss to Malmo has proved to be a blessing in disguise as Rangers aim to win their first European title in 50 years, and in their 150th year as a club.
It has been an emotional season for Glasgow Rangers, who lost legendary manager Walter Smith in October after a short battle with cancer before the passing of iconic kitman Jimmy Bell in the week of their Europa League semi-final second-leg triumph over RB Leipzig. Safe to say it has not been plain sailing on the pitch, either. After an unbeaten league campaign in 2020/21, the Light Blues lost their second Scottish Premiership match of the season, suffering a surprise 1-0 defeat against Dundee United. No longer invincible in the league, their loss at Tannadice was sandwiched between both their Champions League third qualifying round legs against Swedish side Malmo. 2-1 defeats home and away condemned Rangers to a Europa League play-off against Armenian outfit Alashkert – who proved surprisingly tough as Rangers could only manage a 1-0 aggregate victory.
After a poor start to 21/22, Celtic have been very impressive domestically and the so-called transitional period under Ange Postecoglou is pretty much over after one season. Their defeat at Livingston on matchday six was their last in the league and the Hoops won the title by four points. Rangers surrendered their league crown to their arch-rivals after working so hard to get it back after a decade of pain and having faltered in the Scottish top flight. So how have they found themselves in a major European final?
Both Rangers and Celtic – despite no European knockout stage victory in 18 years – have a great reputation on the continental stage. Much of that reputation comes via their fans and the raucous atmosphere they can create on a midweek matchday in Europe. Of course, ‘the 12th man’ is one of the biggest cliches in football but it rings true when it comes to Ibrox Stadium on a European night. The home fans rallied their team through after a poor start in their Europa League group, helping the Gers win their last two home games to progress to the knockout stage. The Scottish club’s last two games in the group stage were under Giovanni van Bronckhorst after Steven Gerrard’s departure for Aston Villa – and, despite faltering domestically, the Dutch manager has managed to guide the Gers to the final of the Europa League against all odds.
Unsurprisingly, Rangers were written off when drawn against tournament favourites, Borussia Dortmund, in the knockout round-play-offs, only to beat the German giants 4-2 in their own backyard. A 2-2 draw in the second leg was enough to see the Scots through. But Dortmund did not have Erling Haaland, so nobody was taking Rangers seriously as contenders to win the whole thing. Red Star Belgrade in the last 16 would be tough, but it was a winnable tie. Ibrox was electric for the first leg and everything seemed to go the Gers’ way, with Allan McGregor making an incredible save to deny Aleksandar Katai from the penalty spot in a 3-0 rout, which was enough to see the Teddy Bears through.
Braga was also a tough quarter-final draw, but the most beatable team in the pot. Without Alfredo Morelos, Rangers looked lost in the first leg and put in an abject performance as they lost 1-0. However, after another amazing night at Ibrox, they prevailed in extra time to set up a semi against Leipzig. Once again struggling away from home without Morelos, Rangers lost 1-0 in Germany but the Ibrox crowd did their thing once again and carried the team to victory. The second leg was arguably the best atmosphere any British fan will experience this season and jubilant scenes at full time were something no Rangers fan will forget.
And now Eintracht Frankfurt are the only thing separating Rangers from their first European trophy since 1972. Having lost the UEFA Cup final in 2008 after an equally remarkable run, the Scottish giants have a score to settle.
Alexa, play "I'm Feeling It" 🕺 pic.twitter.com/inHk0IeAJg
— Rangers Football Club (@RangersFC) May 5, 2022
Club legends, such as Graeme Souness, have had messages shared on Rangers’ social media urging fans to behave in Seville and represent the club in the best way possible. Tens of thousands of fans without tickets are travelling with the Spanish city expected to be painted blue this week. Every fanbase has a small minority that ruins it for the vast majority of fans who don’t act like complete tossers and Rangers are no different. They don’t have the best reputation in that sense after facing criticism for their behaviour during last year’s Scottish league title celebrations, as well as some of their actions in Manchester for the UEFA Cup final 14 years ago. Whilst the fans should behave, encouraging them to do so via a patronising social media clip has not gone down too well. These fans are going to be very important and in a one-off match at Ibrox, you would fancy Rangers to get the job done. At a neutral ground, it is going to be more difficult, but you can still expect these loyal fans to do their absolute best to make it as close to a home fixture as possible.
Frankfurt have some dangerous players and made relatively light work of West Ham – who many fancied to win the whole thing – in the last four. They also disposed of Barcelona in the round prior, storming into a 3-0 lead at the Nou Camp before two goals in second-half injury time took a lot of the gloss off a famous win for the Germans. Frankfurt edged past Real Betis – who faced Celtic in the group stage – in the round of 16 and have gone about their business very quietly; yet, like Rangers, deserve their surprise spot in the final of the Europa League.
Martin Hinteregger is poised to miss out, which is a huge blow for the Bundesliga side. However, Rafael Santos Borre, Filip Kostic, Daichi Kamada, Jesper Lindstrom and Evan Ndicka are some of the excellent players Van Bronckhorst’s side will have to contend with. On paper, Frankfurt are the favourites; but so were Dortmund, Braga and Leipzig. The vast majority of their strongest starting XI would likely flourish in the Premier League, whereas there seems to be a taboo in football that nobody should be signed from the Scottish league because it’s supposedly a league correlating the standard of the National League in England – besides the Old Firm, of course, who would probably finish mid-table in the Championship…
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Rangers’ budget is not as big as Frankfurt’s but it would not be fair to overly praise the Scots for their transfer business despite the low-cost signings of Glen Kamara, James Tavernier and Alfredo Morelos. Although their team is obviously worth more than their opponents in Wednesday’s final, Frankfurt are not a team that tends to break the bank.
While there are no evident repercussions of Frankfurt’s potential success, there are some if Rangers lift the trophy in Seville. European success creates an even bigger gap between the Old Firm and the rest in Scotland, with their financial boost from Europa success and Champions League qualification making it impossible for anyone else in the Scottish Premiership to break into the top two. Having said that, Rangers have carried the Scottish coefficient ever since Steven Gerrard took over in 2018 and as a result of their progress in the Europa League, there are now more European places available in the Scottish top flight. They single-handedly earned this season’s title winners automatic qualification to the Champions League group stage and Hearts, Motherwell and Dundee United will all get a taste of continental football next season.
If Rangers don’t beat Frankfurt at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium, they will still get a chance to play Champions League football next season with their second-place league finish earning them a spot in the third qualifying round. They will be hoping to skip that stage, however, and waltz into the groups. With Europa victories against two German sides already, Van Bronckhorst and his players will fancy their chances of beating a side who finished 11th in the Bundesliga this term. And if they do so, it will be a win dedicated to the legends that are Walter Smith and Jimmy Bell.