Rangers can enjoy Dortmund glamour tie as retaining title remains key

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It is fitting that Rangers’ highest-profile European occasion in more than a decade falls this week. Valentine’s Day marked 10 years since the club tumbled into administration, sparked by a series of events Rangers would rather forget and those in charge of Scottish football would be well advised to remember.

There is some wonderful, exaggerated nonsense said and written about Rangers’ rise from the bottom domestic tier to champions – their economic scale is untouched by 40 of 41 other Scottish clubs – but recent seasons have seen credibility restored against foreign opposition.

The Rangers of 2022 will relish a Europa League meeting with Borussia Dortmund while mindful of more meaningful hurdles ahead. The reawakening of Celtic under Ange Postecoglou is such that Rangers, having won the title with six matches to spare last March, find themselves embroiled in a domestic scrap. Rangers’ recent decline was painfully exposed by a 3-0 Old Firm trouncing this month.

The scoreline flattered Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s team. Having supposedly identified domestic cups as a key area for improvement in 2021-22, Rangers were comfortably bundled out of the League Cup by Hibs. It would of course have been hard to maintain last season’s extraordinary levels of consistency, but building on success was a reasonable expectation. Rangers fans have cause to ask precisely why this has transpired from such a position of power, not least given the depressing weakness of all but one domestic opponent.

Borussia Dortmund v Rangers: a tie for those who once regarded such fixtures as the norm. The winning of Scotland’s Premiership last May understandably triggered euphoric scenes around Ibrox. Pieced together, life should be pretty rosy for followers of the club. Yet this is a team who, seemingly rejuvenated by Van Bronckhorst’s arrival to replace Steven Gerrard, led the league by six points on Boxing Day. They now trail by one with Celtic holding the footballing momentum in Glasgow.

The significance of this goes far beyond who takes delivery of a flag: the likelihood of automatic Champions League entry for this season’s champions means, in fiscal terms, this should be the most valuable title in Scottish history. Van Bronckhorst can enjoy the limelight here in Dortmund for the first leg even if his main role is to return what was a 2/1-on bet before a ball was kicked. Now, astonishingly, Rangers are the underdogs.

Aaron Ramsey
Signing Aaron Ramsey (centre) represents a coup for Rangers. Photograph: Kirk O’Rourke/Rangers FC/Shutterstock

Ross Wilson, the Rangers sporting director, is never shy about trying to drum up positive publicity. Wilson was on club media outlets to herald a job well done in the January transfer window 24 hours before Celtic’s derby win. The reality is that Rangers’ transfer model has been highly questionable for some time, glaringly emphasised when Malmö turfed them out of this season’s Champions League. The sale of Nathan Patterson, an academy graduate who barely featured in the first team, scarcely masks the failure to prevent steep value loss on others.

There is, of course, Aaron Ramsey. The signing of the midfielder on loan from Juventus is a coup but Rangers have sleepwalked towards the point where this caffeine boost was sorely needed. They would have been better off signing a defender – Rangers can be laughably weak at the back – but presumably market forces dictated otherwise.

In another bizarre public intervention, on Tuesday Ramsey’s agent, David Baldwin, used social media to describe an inoffensive column as “stupid”, “disrespectful” and “rag journalism”. Rangers and their online warriors lapped up the sentiment. Not only was it unimpressive in respect of the pile-on it inevitably triggered towards the person who wrote the piece, it suggested unease rather than relaxation. Ramsey, 31 and having last played 90 minutes in October, will complete the season against clubs such as St Johnstone, Dundee and St Mirren. It was not meant to be this way when he signed a £400,000-a-week deal in Italy in the summer of 2019.

Aside from Ramsey – who we are entitled to believe can influence games in Scotland – there are other reasons for Rangers optimism. The temperamental Alfredo Morelos has returned to his prolific best. That the team rebounded from an embarrassing evening at Celtic by dismissing Hearts and Hibs suggests there is no problem with morale. Celtic’s rebuild has been so swift that there is no guarantee they will not wilt as the season goes on. In Europe, under Gerrard and Van Bronckhorst, Rangers have reached levels that add to their reputation as a team. The true challenges, though, are far closer to home. Dortmund are a free hit.

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