A European display that, in context, must take its place among the most excruciating produced by the Ibrox club in nearly 60 years of contesting continental competition can have that effect. Yet, in sifting through the ashes of the footballing immolation that was the truly abysmal showing by Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s men in their 2-0 loss to Union Saint-Gilloise in the Belgian leg of their Champions League third qualifying round, a flicker of hope is offered in the form of something once said by Gordon Strachan made about these hideously-early-in-the-season ties. Referencing Scottish clubs capacity for mucking them up, he once mused that how a team looks in the first days of August has little bearing on the nick they will be in come October.
Strachan said this before Celtic proved his point expertly last season. A campaign where Ange Postecoglou’s new-look team were beaten seven times across the first seven weeks of the season – their Champions League qualifying hopes biting the dust then – before then going unbeaten in the top flight to claim the title, while taking nine points from an arduous Europa League group.
Right now, there is no sugaring of the pill for Rangers. On the evidence of their squeezed out win in Livingston at the weekend and the debacle in the Den Greef Stadium on Tuesday, they are failing in every single department of the side. Devoid of backline organisation, midfield imagination and attacking penetration, the remedial efforts required from van Bronckhorst to prevent another opportunity to bring Champions League football to an Ibrox that hasn’t witnessed that since 2010 must be comprehensive and rapid. Yet, there are reasons to believe such a turnaround can be effected in days rather than months.
It’s the personnel, stupid, might be offered up as the football spin on the old politics line about what wins elections. In Lueven Rangers fielded a team with five players who, in short order, could be eased out for better alternatives. It is hardly a ringing endorsement of striker Antonio Colak and winger Rabbi Matondo that they are two players it must be hoped can be replaced in the short-term, but it isn’t a new phenomenon that new signings can require time and patience to settle.
Crucial in whether Rangers can overturn the two-goal deficit against Union is the availability of Alfredo Morelos. His manager has said it is “realistic” that the Colombian striker could feature in the return leg at Ibrox next Tuesday. What shape he will be in having been sidelined with injury since April will be open to question. What is known, though, is that he is a transformative player for his club – in Europe especially. A 29 goal haul in 57 continental outings brooks no argument on that front. Goal sniffer, street fighter and link man, the Rangers talisman’s multi-faceted game is in stark contrast to the ineffectual, one-dimentional leading of the line witnessed from £2.5m summer arrival Colak. Morelos’ match-changing prowess in Europe can make it feel that he sports an A insignia and a cape in this domain.
Ryan Kent, missing the other night with an ankle problem, isn’t on that level. Indeed, he too often does not have the end product to match the esteem in which he is held. Yet, in a one v one with any other wide players currently at van Bronckhorst’s disposal, the integral performer in the club’s Europa League adventure last season wins hands down. He seems certain to be a starter in the return. If in tandem with Morelos then, automatically, Rangers will be an entirely different proposition for Karel Geraets’ side. Yet, van Bronckhorst can overhaul his team far more extensively for next week.
For one, with a two-goal winning margin necessary even just to take the tie to extra-time, he will dispense with the tactic of John Lundstam operating as a third centre-back. Too negative at the home of a team playing their first European tie in 58 years, the loss of his influence in the middle of the pitch was felt acutely. Not least because Ryan Jack in there, in particular, seemed alarmingly stiff. The Scotland international has had to contend with horrendous injury problems in recent years. It is to be hoped they have not taken a permanent toll, but right now, such as Steven Davis would seem a more serviceable option.
In defence, Borna Barisic seems to be going through one of those off-kilter periods. Needs must, so – just as he was as a later replacement for the Croatian in the first leg – Ridvan Yilmaz requires to be allowed to cement the left-back berth post-haste. The Ibrox club did not agree a £5.5m deal with Besiktas for the 21-year-old to watch pivotal games from the bench. Likewise with centre-back Ben Davies. James Sands simply isn’t the answer in there, and with John Souttar sidelined by an unspecified issue, the £4m signing from Liverpool should be partnered with Connor Goldson.
Perhaps a team that features Morelos, Kent, Davis, Yilmaz and Davies won’t be able to complete an almighty salvage job at Ibrox on Tuesday. It is, though, imperative to test the possibility. As a result, van Bronckhorst must pick his team to face Kilmarnock on Saturday with the Champions League qualifier decider firmly at the forefront of his mind. Wholly unacceptable would be any mission drift; a sense that the players selected for the first leg were so awful they can only improve immeasurably roared on by an Ibrox crowd that appeared capable of putting the hex on visiting teams in fabled second legs against Borrussia Dortmund, SC Braga and RB Leipzig in their favourites’ Seville run last season.
Rangers have never overturned a two goal away first leg deficit in their European history. They have never even progressed when losing by any margin in such circumstances in a Champions League qualifier. Yet, curiously, however bleak their current predicament appears, it could be argued they will never have a better chance of creating the history to end these sequences. There was nothing about Union truly to frighten in the opening leg. They are a modest team, made to appear more by Rangers’ rancidness. Moreover, Gaerets’ side – as their club’s first European representatives in 58 years – have no experience of toughing out a European tie in the bone-shuddering ferocity that awaits them under the lights at Ibrox.
Strachan had only one Champions League qualifying failure in his time at Celtic – but what a failure it was, the club losing 5-0 away to Artmedia Bratislava in his first game in charge, in the summer of 2005. However, it was how they followed that up that has resonance for Rangers now. In the return leg – against a Slovakian side with more about them than the current Union team – incredibly, they came within a fluffled chance late on of taking the tie to extra-time. The improbable is always possible. As Rangers know better than most following their continental classics earlier this year.