A post-match episode of mutual appreciation as the stragglers made their way along Paisley Road West shortly before 11.30pm on Thursday. RB Leipzig fan: “Great stadium.” Rangers fan: “We were the underdogs.” Leipzig fan: “Underdogs? These are the Glasgow Rangers. Laughter, handshakes and the two continued on their merry way.
Anyone interested in the soul of football – certainly in Germany – may find it appropriate that Rangers progress to the Europa League final at the expense of the sporting wing of an energy drink empire. Red Bull and its wings cannot outshine Ibrox when it sings. Those who visited the Leipzig contingent seemed struck by the atmosphere, which was far more intense than a week earlier at the RB Arena.
What the late-night exchange further illustrated was a sense that Rangers are still seen as serious operators in Europe. Although various questions, mostly based on history, support this point, it remains unbelievable that Giovanni van Bronckhorst leads his team to the final in Sevilla. It’s a credit to the Rangers. They absolutely deserve to be there. Teams that haven’t even managed to reach the last four include Barcelona and Napoli. The English sniffle about the Scottish football scene should subside for the time being given that West Ham and Leicester were working on the same evening that Rangers dispatched Ibrox in rapture.
The extent of the Rangers’ achievements is underlined when evaluating their personnel. Right-back James Tavernier is the top scorer in the Europa League. Goalkeeper Allan McGregor is 40 years old. Alfredo Morelos, Van Bronckhorst’s main striker, missed both sets of the semi-final. It was the same for his replacement Kemar Roofe. It’s hardly disrespectful to Scott Wright, Ryan Jack, Joe Aribo, Fashion Sakala, Borna Barisic or Connor Goldson to point out that they wouldn’t bother Borussia Dortmund or Leipzig’s starting XI, but these two German clubs have been ruled out by Rangers en route to the showpiece occasion of May 18.
John Lundstram is the current darling of the Ibrox faithful and has improved considerably over the course of this season, but the fact remains that free transfer from a then Championship-bound Sheffield United, who has oscillated between central midfield and centre-back, conquered Leipzig, a team containing a forward, Christopher Nkunku, watched by the continent’s top clubs and valued at £70m. Rangers are not Rag Tag Rovers, but in black and white they have no place in a European final.
Rangers fans shouldn’t cry foul at such candid analysis. Instead, they should revel in the unity – and skill – that got them this far. When Celtic reached the UEFA Cup final in 2003 – also in Sevilla – the availability of the excellent Henrik Larsson meant they could be accused of running amok in the competition in cheating mode. What Glasgow clubs have in common, even 19 years apart, is a stadium setting that has never ceased to annoy overseas opposition. The dizzying noise of Ibrox seemed to paralyze Leipzig, as it has done to Braga, Red Star Belgrade and countless others of late.
Rangers have no reason to fear Eintracht Frankfurt. It seems curious to say, given the Scottish Premiership points shipped to Ross County and Motherwell and the League Cup semi-final at the hands of Hibernian. Europe highlights the split personality of Rangers. Some of that may be tactical – Rangers can counter-attack in the Europa League to a much greater extent than they typically do at home – but Van Bronckhorst’s men seem to gain an extra level of resilience when the opposition is foreign. Steven Gerrard encouraged and developed this during his tenure. This team, in fact, was built by Gerrard. Yet Van Bronckhorst, in becoming the fourth manager to guide Rangers to a European final, overtook his predecessor. Eintracht sit 11th in the Bundesliga, nine places behind Dortmund and six adrift of Leipzig. The Rangers will relish this battle.
Celtic fans won’t like the comparison but it’s valid; when they enjoyed a vast competitive advantage in Scotland after the financial collapse of Rangers in 2012, they could do nothing like the European progress that their oldest enemies have now made. Illustrating the oddest moments, a result where Celtic are the Scottish champions and Rangers claim a European trophy would leave both halves of the Old Firm perfectly satisfied. Everyone could enjoy Champions League group stage football, which hadn’t been the case since the 2007-08 season. Scotland’s coefficient load is such that two automatic entrants into the first tier of European competition are in sight. With the national team well placed under Steve Clarke, the overall situation is healthy.
Rangers probably won’t care as they anticipate May 18 and the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium. Nor should they; there have been such struggles over the past decade that Glasgow’s blue half is entitled to savor their moment and their moment alone. It has been a race worthy of the most lavish praise. It would be madness to deny that his finest moment is yet to come.