“Not many players can play European finals. It’s not for every player.” – Giovanni van Bronckhorst
In their 150th year, just a few days shy of the 50th anniversary of their greatest night in 1972, Rangers are on the cusp of modern-day immortality.
A 3-1 victory over RB Leipzig at Ibrox two weeks ago sealed a 3-2 aggregate win and Rangers’ spot in the Europa League final – their first European final in 14 years.
Rangers are the first Scottish club to reach the final of a major European competition since the late Walter Smith led his side to the UEFA Cup showpiece in 2008. The question now is whether they can go one further and emulate the Barcelona heroes of 1972.
Victory in Seville on May 18 would truly slam the door shut on a decade of turmoil, mudslinging, court battles and Luxembourgian bushes in the most mindboggling way for the Ibrox club.
The story of Rangers’ journey back to the top of Scottish football is now well documented but, to provide a little more context, this time 10 years ago uncertainty still clouded the future of the club and they were just a few months away from opening their Third Division season with a 2-2 draw at Peterhead.
The wounds inflicted by events off the pitch in recent years were just about healed by last season’s title success of 55 – winning a European trophy, for so long uncontemplated, let alone dreamed about, would provide a fairy tale ending to a chapter fraught with tribulation.
Eintracht Frankfurt will stand in Rangers’ way in the Estadio Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán.
The two sides have met just once before in the semi-finals of the 1960 European Cup. The Germans emerged winners 12-4 on aggregate before a 7-3 defeat to the Real Madrid of Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas at Hampden Park in the final.
The goals will surely not flow so freely in the Andalusian capital this time around but an intriguing prospect lies in wait, with glory and Champions League riches among the spoils for the victor.
How Rangers re-shaped their reputation in Europe
The roots of this run to Seville can be traced back to a balmy night in Govan in July 2018.
Steven Gerrard took charge of Rangers for the first time in a competitive match in a 2-0 win over KF Shkupi of Macedonia in the first qualifying round of the Europa League.
Such was the club’s standing on the continent at the time it would be the first of four qualifying rounds Rangers would have to navigate to reach the group stages of the competition – a prospect scoffed at by some given the embarrassing loss to Progres Niederkorn of Luxembourg the previous summer.
Not only did Gerrard guide Rangers to the group stages, they went into the final round of games against Rapid Vienna with a chance of reaching the knockout ties. They would fall short on that occasion but draws home and away to Villarreal and a memorable win over the Austrians at Ibrox were signs that Gerrard could get a tune out of his side on a Thursday evening.
Rangers went a step further the following season, with wins over Porto and Feyenoord helping them reach the Round of 32 where their European adventure looked to be over after going 2-0 behind against Braga at Ibrox, only for Ianis Hagi to inspire his side to a 3-2 win. They would come unstuck against Bayer Leverkusen in the following round, with the away leg completed in August 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but Rangers’ progress was undeniable.
Their invincible season on the way to the Scottish Premiership title overshadowed their exploits in Europe last season but that rendered results no less remarkable.
Gerrard and assistant coach Michael Beale had assembled a contemporary team built to pick off opponents in Europe and to largely overwhelm them at Ibrox. It could be argued that these players and the shape they were employed in were more suited to European football, with no fear of toiling to break down stubborn, packed defences as in Scotland. The likes of Ryan Kent enjoyed more space in key areas of the pitch while being able to press high in the opposition’s half.
They beat Galatasaray in qualifying before finishing unbeaten ahead of Benfica in their group. Gerrard’s side lost out to Slavia Prague in the Round of 16 with a 2-0 defeat at Ibrox, on a night when Glen Kamara claimed he was racially abused by Ondrej Kudela late in the match, sparking a fracas that continued in the tunnel after the game. Kudela was handed a 10-game ban by UEFA for “racist behaviour” but has always denied the claims.
Confidence was high going into Rangers’ Champions League qualifiers against Malmo in August on the back of an unbeaten Premiership campaign but Gerrard’s side struggled to get going.
New signing John Lundstram toiled, while Alfredo Morelos was unavailable for the first leg and the Colombian’s goal in the return tie at Ibrox was not enough as the 10-men Swedes won through 4-2 on aggregate.
An uninspiring 1-0 aggregate win over Armenian side Aleshkert in the Europa League qualifiers threatened to set the tone for Rangers’ European campaign this season, with the side losing their opening two matches in the group stages against Lyon and Sparta Prague. Four points from a double header against Brondby repaired some of the damage but there was a nagging sense that Rangers had lost a little bit of the spark that had made their European adventures and unbeaten league season under Gerrard so special.
Gerrard departs – how Rangers kickstarted the road to Seville
So how did they get here? Well, for starters, Rangers were already a good, modern European side before Giovanni van Bronckhorst was brought in to replace the Aston Villa-bound Gerrard in late November.
Gerrard’s legacy at Rangers does not stop at winning the club’s 55th title, but instead extends to the continent where he made the Gers relevant again. Rangers’ rise in Europe from the shambles of Progres Niederkorn cannot be overstated and Gerrard’s impact on both Rangers’ and Scotland’s European co-efficient and ranking is fairly breath-taking.
Rangers have risen to 34th in UEFA’s club rankings from 262nd in 2018, while Scotland will start next season in ninth place in the UEFA rankings – which means Celtic will progress automatically to the group stages of the Champions League as Premiership winners.
The timing of Gerrard’s departure was a source of frustration for Rangers supporters, coming on the eve of a Scottish League Cup semi-final and a make or break Europa League clash with Sparta Prague at Ibrox. Van Bronckhorst watched from the stands as Rangers lost 3-1 to Hibernian at Hampden but was on hand to guide his team to a 2-0 win over the Czech side, guaranteeing knockout football in Europe for the third season running.
This is where it gets really interesting….
Rangers stunned Borussia Dortmund 4-2 at Signal Iduna Park in the first leg of their Round of 32 tie. It certainly wasn’t supposed to go like that against the tournament favourites, who had dropped into the competition from the Champions League.
Van Bronckhorst’s side were aggressive and bold, taking the game to the Germans and getting the result their performance deserved, becoming the first Scottish side to win in Dortmund.
It was in the second leg where it could be argued that many Rangers fans started to truly believe they were seeing something special, however.
A rocking Ibrox was treated to an early James Tavernier penalty but goals from Jude Bellingham and Donyell Malen set alarm bells ringing as the momentum in the tie swung the way of the visitors before half-time.
What was to follow was a remarkable second 45 minutes from Rangers, filled with control, creativity and just the right amount of aggression going forward.
“The players came away from that game saying, ‘at what point to they start taking us seriously? We beat a great team in Dortmund and that gave us the confidence to start thinking you can go all the way,” says Ryan Kent.
Van Bronckhorst’s decision to switch to three at the back with Lundstram dropping in proved pivotal, with Rangers snuffing out Dortmund’s attacking options and obliterating the momentum they had built up towards the end of the half.
It is a tactical tweak the Dutchman has called upon at different times in the run to Seville, including home and away to RB Leipzig. Lundstram has completely re-built his Rangers career under Van Bronckhorst after a slow start to life in Glasgow and his versatility in Europe has been indispensable.
If Tavernier has been the face of Rangers’ run in Europe in the knockout stages then the former Sheffield United man has been the heart of it – controlling midfields, offering a composed presence as part of a three in defence and popping up with vital goals in Dortmund and, of course, against Leipzig at Ibrox.
Van Bronckhorst’s in-game adaptability has been crucial. He was heavily criticised for his team selection and tactics in the 3-0 defeat to Celtic in February but, despite domestic struggles since the turn of the year, has regained the trust of doubters with his bold approach in Europe.
He got it right against Red Star Belgrade as Rangers’ 3-0 first-leg win at Ibrox all but secured passage to the quarter-finals against Braga. There was pointed criticism after Rangers’ meek display in their 1-0 first-leg defeat to the Portuguese side but the manager had an ace up his sleeve….
‘Ibrox, baby. It’s just different.’
Carlos Carvalhal’s side celebrated that first-leg win as though they were already in the semi-finals. Post-match, however, Van Bronckhorst seemed unperturbed: “We know what the task is. It is the final game of this tie and I know at home, with the crowd behind us as always, that we can give a good performance.”
It was a muted call to arms of sorts and the Rangers supporters did not disappoint. Ibrox has been at the forefront of Rangers’ European story over the past four years. This season, however, things seem to have moved to a different level.
Dortmund were hit by a wall of noise as they attempted to claw their way back into the tie while Braga players looked noticeably rattled by the atmosphere they encountered in Glasgow’s south side. RB Leipzig again celebrated their first-leg win in Germany with gusto but Van Bronckhorst and his players were unshaken in their belief that the tie was still in their hands. They had Ibrox.
What followed was extraordinary. Rangers players, staff and fans rode a wave of emotion right over the visitors with the club in mourning following the death of legendary kitman Jimmy Bell earlier in the week.
Leipzig boss Domenico Tedesco hailed the atmosphere as the best he’d ever seen, with Sky in Germany reporter Philipp Hinze calling the occasion “the most unforgettable football night of my life”.
Van Bronckhorst proved his mettle again. Gerrard wore his heart on his sleeve but the Dutchman rarely gives much away. An occasion like this, on the back of a tragic week for all at the club, perhaps needed that little bit of extra composure and calm. Rangers didn’t let the excitement, noise or sense of grief from the stands alter their game plan.
They matched Leipzig three on three at the back with Lundstram prowling on the right-hand side of defence, allowing Tavernier to do what he does best going forward. It was bold. Leipzig had their spells as expected, but Van Bronckhorst and Rangers executed the game plan pretty perfectly.
“I don’t think anyone going into this season would have expected Rangers to reach the final of this competition,” Kent added. “It’s a platform where we can really showcase ourselves under less pressure. All that changes now going into the final. Everybody is expecting us to go and win, ourselves included.
“This has been a journey this team has been on for four years since we beat Ufa to get into the competition. That journey has been a beautiful struggle, each year we’ve wanted to progress further than the previous year and we’ve managed to do that getting to the final.”
They did so without a recognised striker against Leipzig, while Joe Aribo, who has now played 65 games this season for club and country, had to be taken off injured. Last month they had to dig deep to overcome Braga over 120 minutes before a trip to Hampden three days later to play a Scottish Cup semi-final against Celtic where they prevailed again after another bout of extra-time.
The season has been long and ultimately disappointing domestically thus far. The prospect of winning a Scottish Cup final would usually occupy the thoughts of players and fans come mid-May but it has barely been spoken about.
Rangers have reached their fifth European final, at least two more than any other Scottish side. Seville is all that matters for now.
What can Rangers expect from Eintracht Frankfurt?
Frankfurt are unbeaten in the competition heading into the Europa League final and will be the third German side Rangers have faced in this year’s tournament.
They have a decent European pedigree, losing that famous 1960 European Cup final to the great Real Madrid but they did win the Uefa Cup in 1980.
They won the DFB-Pokal in 2018 but a disappointing season in the Bundesliga this term has seen them finish firmly in midtable so they will be desperate to win in Seville to progress to the Champions League next year.
Sky in Germany’s Frankfurt reporter Dennis Bayer says the club are all in to win the Europa League after an impressive run to the final, which included victories over Barcelona and West Ham.
“Frankfurt are as excited as you can be,” Bayer says. “The league is done for them and they finished 11th. It means they’re putting all of their eggs into the Europa League basket. They’re just focusing on the Europa League and that’s their cup to win and their chance to go to the Champions League.
“Yes, it has been disappointing in the league – a little. Frankfurt are a mediocre team in the Bundesliga. Their goal is to compete for Europa League places but that didn’t happen this year because they were too shaky. But they needed to appoint a new manager before the season.
“At the end of the season they have put all their chips on the Europa League and haven’t been that motivated for the Bundesliga – that explains their bad results towards the end of the season.”
Rangers have adapted their own style when necessary to ensure progression in Europe this season. But what can they expect from Frankfurt?
Bayer believes Filip Kostic, who scored twice in the Nou Camp, offers the greatest threat to the Rangers backline, setting up an intriguing tussle between him and James Tavernier on that side of the pitch.
“Manager Oliver Glasner loves to go with a 3-2-4-1 formation. Frankfurt try to attack fast, they are very dangerous with vertical counter-attacks, usually through their fast wingers Filip Kostic and Ansgar Knauff.
“Kostic is their most dangerous player offensively because he is fast, technically great, physically strong and has outstanding crossing abilities. Kostic was also the man of the match against Barcelona – he’s the one to watch.
“Knauff joined the team in January – he helped Frankfurt to balance their offense. They used to attack via the left side, Kostic’s side, but since Knauff’s arrival they can also be dangerous via the right side of the field. Another player to look out for is defensive midfielder Djibril Sow, who’s very calm and makes very smart decisions.
“Frankfurt are not the best at defending against quick attacks because they haven’t got the fastest players defensively. If you can work around their press and pass the ball quickly then you’re going to have a chance.”
Before a fan viewing area was set up at the La Cartuja Stadium in Seville, UEFA had asked ticketless fans not to travel, with both Rangers and Frankfurt supporters scrambling to secure tickets for the occasion. Reports from Germany suggested that Frankfurt received 100,000 requests for tickets.
“The Frankfurt fans are crazy about this too. They’re going all in with their team, they travel all around Europe with them like we saw in Barcelona,” adds Bayer.
“Frankfurt are not that big in a sporting sense – they’re kind of a middling club here – but fan wise, they’re one of the biggest clubs in Germany. You have Bayern Munich, you have Borussia Dortmund and then number three in terms of fan base, would be Frankfurt. They are definitely one of the most impressive and emotional fan bases in Germany, in both a good and a bad way.”
And Bayer does not believe Frankfurt, or anyone in Germany, are taking Rangers lightly.
“Rangers are well respected in Germany. Everybody knows about their tradition, legacy and fan power,” he says. “Their strength on the pitch was very underrated prior to the Dortmund game. But after the game against Leipzig, they aren’t underrated anymore and are seen as a worthy opponent on the same level as Frankfurt.”
What do the stats say?
The stats suggest that there is not a great deal between the sides.
Rangers have played more matches than anyone else in the competition this season, with 14 to Frankfurt’s 12, with the Germans yet to lose a game in the Europa League. They are also the top scorers in the tournament with 22, closely followed by their German opponents on 20.
They have launched the most attacks in the competition on 478 to Frankfurt’s 408 and are also top of the pile for balls recovered defensively and tackles ahead of, predictably, Frankfurt in second.
Tavernier, Allan McGregor and Connor Goldson have played the most minutes of anyone in the competition on 1200 while Kent, Calvin Bassey and Lundstram help to make up the top 10.
Indeed, the Rangers captain leads the way for goals scored with seven – which from right-back is pretty remarkable, regardless of whether or not he takes the penalties. He’s the third Englishman to score at least 10 goals in the Europa League (excluding qualifiers), with only former team-mate Jermain Defoe and Harry Kane scoring more, with both on 11.
Comparisons have been made between this side and the one Smith led to Manchester in 2008. Back then it felt as though Smith’s sheer force of will dragged his players past Werder Bremen and Fiorentina. It was an incredible achievement but one built on an immoveable team and work ethic and stoic defensive displays.
This side have scored 16 goals in the knockout stages of the competition alone, going toe to toe with some of the best players in the Bundesliga while navigating the notorious atmosphere in the Marakana in Belgrade along the way.
Fans could perhaps be forgiven for feeling more optimistic travelling out to Spain this week than they were going down the M6 to meet Zenit St Petersburg 14 years ago.
Rangers team news
Rangers striker Kemar Roofe has been passed fit for the Europa League final. Roofe has not played since April 17 but has recovered from a knee injury and could feature against Eintracht Frankfurt in Seville on Wednesday.
Manager Giovanni Van Bronckhorst said at the pre-match media conference: “Kemar is available. He trained for the first time with us yesterday (Monday). He had individual training before that and he will be training later. He will be in the squad and if I want to use him he is available.”
Rangers will be without long-term absentees Alfredo Morelos, Ianis Hagi and Filip Helander but are otherwise expected to have a fully-fit squad.
- This will be the third major European final to be held in Seville. The first saw Steaua Bucuresti beat Barcelona on penalties in the 1986 European Cup at Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, while the second saw Porto defeat Celtic in the UEFA Cup in 2003 at Estadio La Cartuja.
- Eintracht Frankfurt have reached their third final in major European competition – they lost in the final of the European Cup in 1960 against Real Madrid before beating Borussia Mönchengladbach to lift the UEFA Cup in 1980.
- Rangers are the first Scottish club to reach the final of a major European competition since Rangers themselves in the 2007-08 UEFA Cup. They have reached five such finals, as many as every other Scottish side combined.
- Eintracht Frankfurt and Rangers have played each other twice before in Europe, with a European Cup semi-final tie in 1960 producing a total of 16 goals (Eintracht Frankfurt 12-4 Rangers on aggregate). The eight goals per game generated in this fixture is the highest for either side in major European competition (min. 2 games in a fixture).
- Rangers lost their first two matches in the UEFA Europa League this season, beaten by Lyon and Sparta Prague in the group stages without scoring a single goal. They have become the first team in UEFA Cup/Europa League history to reach the final despite losing their first two matches in the competition proper that season.
- Eintracht Frankfurt are unbeaten in the UEFA Europa League this season, and could become only the third side to win the competition without being beaten, after Chelsea in 2018-19 and Villarreal in 2020-21. Only two sides have reached the final unbeaten but not gone on to lift the trophy – Benfica in 2013-14 and Inter in 2019-20, both whom dropped down into the competition from the UEFA Champions League.
What would a win mean for Rangers?
First and foremost it would catapult this particular squad into folklore. The winning European Cup Winners’ Cup side of 1972 contained some giant names in the club’s history, including former captain John Greig, Sandy Jardine, Derek Johnstone and Colin Stein. James Tavernier has the opportunity to put his name among the legends of the club.
A victory would see Rangers become the first Scottish side to win more than one European trophy in an era when reaching, let alone winning, a continental final is seemingly getting tougher for many clubs outside of the top five leagues. Porto were the last side from a country outside of Germany, England, Spain, France or Italy to win the tournament in 2011 and they boast a considerable European pedigree themselves.
Amid the romantic connotations associated with success in Seville, a Rangers victory would be a gamechanger for the club on a financial level.
It would ensure guaranteed entry to the group stages of the Champions League next season, with the winners of the Europa League going straight into pot one for the draw and banking around £13m just for taking part in the groups. This is before performance-related prize money, which could see the club earn upwards of £30m, all before additional streams of income, including matchday revenue. It is money that would allow the club to become the self-sustaining outfit that the board have been working on since 2016.
Rangers could cancel out Celtic’s Champions League cash for next season in one night, while adding considerable Europa League prize money to the pot going forward as well. The Ibrox side may have missed out on that top table revenue with defeat to Malmo last summer but a run to the Europa League final has proved just as lucrative.
Rangers took in just over £3m for reaching the group stages of the competition and have since earned around £14m in total from prize money. Winning the tournament would bring in another £3.4m on top of that.
In addition to this, Rangers have banked nearly £1m in coefficient points money as well as the best part of £10m in matchday revenue from European games at Ibrox, which is not inconsiderable alongside TV money for the season.
A victory in Seville would see Rangers book a place in the UEFA Super Cup against either Liverpool or Real Madrid in August. Aside from the prestige of taking part in a fixture against such illustrious opposition either way, the club would be guaranteed at least another £3m for getting there. The winner will take home close to another £1m from the game in Helsinki as well.
Ahead of the final Rangers managing director Stewart Robertson insisted that the run to Seville would help to serve all areas of the club going forward.
“The run we’ve had now is probably slightly more than we would have had from qualifying for the Champions League. It’s a terrific boost, it allows us to do so many things,” Robertson said.
“Beyond the money, it’s the profile. You look at the profile the players get and the ability to attract new players when you come to the summer. I think when you’re in a European final it makes the club much more attractive.
“Financially it’s been a fantastic addition to what we budgeted for so that allows us to look at strengthening the team in the summer, it allows us to continue with the infrastructure projects we still have to do around the stadium and training ground. So it’s been a fantastic boost to the club’s finances.”
Destiny awaits in the heat of Seville
Modern football trends suggest that Rangers were not supposed to reach the final. A starting XI that cost a little over £13m to assemble – including £7m alone on Kent – had no right on paper to eliminate RB Leipzig but that has been the story of this run to Seville.
Barcelona, serial tournament winners Sevilla, Real Betis and Real Sociedad were in the draw at one stage. They have fallen by the wayside along with the likes of Napoli, Lazio, and Atalanta. Lyon, Marseille, Monaco and Porto would have fancied their chances at one point, instead their European hopes are over for this season.
Rangers accounted for Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig while Bayer Leverkusen have also gone. Big names have fallen.
Ten years ago events were set in motion that rocked the Scottish footballing landscape and sent Rangers to the brink of disaster. Now they are in a European final – in Seville, no less, where Old Firm rivals Celtic ran Porto close in 2003. If you had suggested back then that this is how the next decade would conclude you’d have been afforded a curt Glaswegian dismissal.
Those connected to the club have suffered this past year. They’ve lost greats in Walter Smith and his friend Jimmy Bell, in a season which had been earmarked as one of milestones and a celebration of anniversaries to remember their founders and some of their greatest names.
How fitting it would be if these Rangers players were to honour them and the momentous occasions that came before by etching their own names into history forever.