It may not be the most glamorous of the potential ties Rangers could have had, but the clash with Crvena Zvezda is one that fans of the Ibrox club will look forward to with excitement and belief that another memorable European night could be on the cards.
The reward for beating Borussia Dortmund and reaching the last 16 of the Europa League was never going to be an easy tie, but with the likes of West Ham, Bayer Leverkusen and Lyon avoided, the Ibrox side can at least be content they weren’t handed the toughest opposition from the draw.
Never the less, having topped a group that contained included Braga, Midtjylland and Ludogorets Razgrad, and without a defeat in their last 13 games Crvena Zvezda, or Red Star if you prefer, have already shown their danger.
Champions League group stage participants in two of the last three seasons, it was only an away goals defeat to AC Milan that ended their Europa League journey last season.
Crvena Zvezda are just like Rangers
Rangers might recognise some similarities in the Serbian side’s season so far. The league champions found their hopes of playing in UEFA’s elite competition dashed in the qualifiers but found happiness in the Europa League, just like Rangers.
A tough group stage was negotiated in efficient style, with six goals in six games, just like Rangers. And the European competition has come while fighting a league campaign back home where the team find themselves tucked just behind their fierce rivals at the top of table as the season hots up on all fronts.
Where the sides differ is that as group winners, Crvena Zvezda didn’t have to contest a play-off round. That might be to their disadvantage having seen how Rangers’ meeting with a Champions League drop-out went.
‘Europe is taking notice’
Don’t underestimate how the defeat of Dortmund will have bolstered Rangers’ confidence. Ryan Jack was right in his post-match claim that other sides in Europe will have sat up and taken notice of the result.
Rangers’ progress didn’t come from sitting back and hoping that they could squeak by if the Bundesliga side had an off day, they took the match to more fancied opposition in their own back yard and thrived in the first leg.
Having already marked up notable results in Europe over the last few seasons against teams like Porto, Braga, Standard Liege and Royal Antwerp, this seemed a level up.
The home leg brought its own challenges on Thursday but further confidence will have been gained from how Rangers reacted to being 2-1 down, not just with the flexibility to change shape and solve problems at half time, but to take the game to Dortmund’s stars in the second half and show an appetite to push into the last 16, not squeak in defending a lead with a backs-to-the-wall performance.
That result sets up another big night at Ibrox that Rangers can eagerly anticipate, and a second leg in Belgrade that could be another thriller.
The Europa League hasn’t been lacking in drama and thrills for Rangers so far, and Friday’s draw provides a tantalising possibility that if the Scottish champions rise to the occasion, there could be further reward in the competition.