When the final whistle sounded in Poland and Rangers’ 2-0 win over Lech Poznan confirmed them as winners of their Europa League group, the celebrations were unremarkable.
Fist bumps were shared, handshakes exchanged and Steven Gerrard and his players headed down the tunnel. The fairly relaxed reaction to a notable achievement was in stark contrast to 12 months ago.
Last December, after Rangers won at Celtic Park for the first time in nine years, Gerrard was impassioned, roaring into a camera and pumping his fists. The Rangers manager was criticised by some, and praised by others, but admitted in hindsight he wouldn’t let his emotions overspill again.
The reaction to a big moment isn’t the only difference a year has made to the Ibrox side. Gerrard’s team look stronger in every way and once again Europe has been a strong measure of progress.
It’s only a few years on from Pedro Caixinha standing in a bush in Luxembourg trying to explain, rationalise or excuse a humiliating Europa League exit to Progres Niederkorn. Since Gerrard’s arrival, season-on-season improvement in Europe has been proof that the club is making strides in the right direction to challenge Celtic for trophies in Scotland.
Two seasons ago, the first success of Gerrard’s reign was qualifying for the group stages, negotiating four qualifying rounds before a third-placed finish in his team’s first experience of the tournament.
At this stage in the league, the team had suffered three defeats and as many draws. The overall impression was that while the manager and his staff were seeing a lift in performance levels, the side was still finding its feet and learning their own strengths and weaknesses.
Last season brought a much-improved group stage, qualifying for the knockouts in second place ahead of Young Boys and Feyenoord, then enjoying a win over Braga to reach the last 16 even as domestic form faltered. Bayer Leverkusen proved too strong even in the first leg of their tie before lockdown ended the season and left Gerrard to ponder his next moves to develop the side.
The spine of his side was already in place but new recruits were added to widen the options and bring depth to the squad. The approach in Europe was relatively unchanged though. Rigorous tactical discipline would restrict opponents’ options and chances, control of the midfield would be sought, and from that foothold an energetic attack would look to punish any lapses.
This season, it’s delivered beyond what many would have expected. The route through qualification was shorter, partly because there was one round fewer to clear and because each tie was a single-game affair. Galatasaray are no pushovers, but were dealt with in the play-off and a group with the well-kent names of Standard Liege, Lech Poznan and Benfica was not the kindest Rangers could have drawn.
To come through it unbeaten and as group winners is no small achievement. Rangers were in the third group of seeds when the draw was made, so logically third place would be the expected position.
Of the 12 Europa League groups, seven were won by the top seeds, two by the second seeds and only Milan and Hoffenheim joined Rangers in winning their section ahead of two higher-ranked opponents. Decent company to be in.
Gerrard and his players will now set the Europa League aside, with the exception of watching Monday’s draw, and turn their attention to two months of unbroken domestic action. They will do so with relish, having established a position in the league that shows huge promise.
It’s not just the points gap over Celtic that marks out the opening months of the campaign as being a resounding success, it’s the manner in which it’s been done.
There’s been no hangover from European nights, or loss of focus as one competition has been switched for another. The unbeaten run in Europe is matched by a long stretch without defeat in Scotland.
A team that has looked strong but prone to an off-day in recent seasons now looks almost robotic in its efficient delivery of Premiership points week after week. After 16 games played there have been 14 wins and two draws, amassing 46 points well before the half-way point.
It’s not just that the total is three points better off than last year, it’s that it’s only two points less than the Celtic ‘Invincibles’ side of 2016-17. And while that team had scored one more goal in the same stretch, having found the net 46 times, Brendan Rodgers’ side had conceded 13. Rangers have only let in three league goals so far.
The season hasn’t been flawless – what would have been headline-grabbing wins over Benfica were allowed to slip away as the Portuguese side came back from being two goals behind, not once but twice. But the end of the group stages closes another chapter of the season and it’s all been positive reading for Gerrard so far.
The next stretch comes without the high-profile of the UEFA tournaments but is just as important. The rest of this month brings five league games as well as the quarter-final of the League Cup, a competition where Rangers are favourites to win the trophy.
Having just signed off from a six-game European group without defeat, a similar return in the last half-dozen games of 2020 would put them in an imperious position ahead of meeting Celtic on January 2.
That encounter already has the look of a defining moment in the season for both clubs. Celtic’s recent troubles have seen Neil Lennon backed to continue in his efforts, with a review to take place “in the new year”. That’s being taken to mean that derby defeat would signal change at Celtic Park.
Last year, the derby win for Rangers was followed by a fall from a position of strength and another season without a trophy. It’s arguable that the European adventure acted as a counter to what might have been a damaging negative effect mentally. A side that prospered against big names in the Europa League couldn’t be a bad team and there was reason to continue on the same track.
This season, a team that has been more than equal to tests from three experienced European sides is going into every game with increasing confidence. It will take silverware to bring wild celebrations from Gerrard again but a continuation of his side’s form for the remaining games of 2020 could make that moment look like more of a certainty.