When the referee signals full-time inside Ibrox, Giovanni van Bronckhorst often races up the tunnel and out of sight. Not so following Rangers’ 120 minutes against Braga.
There were high fives and hugs with players, coaching staff, the doctor, the security man – anyone of a blue persuasion was getting a bit of van Bronckhorst love. A rare show of emotion from the Dutchman after leading his team within two games of a European final.
The first of those two tests takes place here in Germany on Thursday. Rangers are no longer just on a ‘European run’ – this is more than that.
Their record in the Europa League in recent years has been a source of pride, but this season is now promising so much more.
Bad start to brink of final
After recovering from a bad start, when defeats to Lyon and Sparta Prague left them pointless after two group games, then-manager Steven Gerrard steered a recovery. When the Scouser bolted down the M6 to Aston Villa, van Bronckhorst guided the team into the knock-outs.
And then they were drawn against Borussia Dortmund.
Truth be told, there was more chance of my old buddy and news anchor John MacKay buying a round of drinks than Rangers defeating the favourites. But that they did – and how.
The 6-4 aggregate win set up a last-16 tie against Red Star Belgrade. The Scottish champions saw off the Serbians, then Braga, to set up a semi-final showdown against RB Leipzig.
Reaching the last four is a remarkable achievement, but the Ibrox club are hungry for more.
They are 180 minutes away from a European final, and as van Bronckhorst has told his players – these opportunities don’t come often. Ahead of Braga, he urged the team to seize the moment. It’ll be the same in the semi-final.
Boss back in the big time
For van Bronckhorst, big games aren’t a new thing. This guy has played in a World Cup final, El Clasicos and north London derbies. Now a leader in his own right, he’s taking a group of players somewhere they have never been.
Signs of his managerial character and tactical nous have come in Europe, where bold changes have secured impressive results.
The Dutchman can spot weaknesses and be decisive, like by dropping John Lundstram from midfield into a back three against Dortmund. Van Bronckhorst later revealed it was one of three tactical switches he had up his sleeve.
The occasional lapses or flat performances that have allowed Celtic to put one hand on the Premiership trophy haven’t been seen in Europe, where the manager has found answers to difficult questions on more than one occasion.
At this level, of course, the questions don’t stop for the manager or his team.
Losing talismanic striker Alfredo Morelos at a crucial part of the campaign was a test of squad and of character. The man given the nod to replace the Colombian, Kemar Roofe, fired Rangers into the last four.
Then the club was hit with a fresh blow. The Jamaican international has been ruled out of the first leg, leaving van Bronckhorst seriously short up front. With Cedric Itten not registered, Fashion Sakala is the only other striker in his squad.
The summer signing from Belgium side Oostende offers real pace, energy and commitment. Those qualities were evident when he started against Braga in Portugal, but the Zambian was hooked after an hour after failing to cut it against a mediocre Braga back line.
If given the nod on Thursday, he might need to have the game of his life to seriously trouble a far superior Leipzig defence.
Another option van Bronckhorst may consider is a false nine. Joe Aribo and Scott Arfield both played the role to good effect against Motherwell on Saturday after Rangers were reduced to ten men. Scott Wright also impressed at Fir Park, but I’m not convinced moving him from the wing to a more central position will reap rewards in the Red Bull Arena.
New heroes at Ibrox
There is one question that has already been answered.
After Lundstram arrived in the summer, many fans asked what he was bringing to Gerrard’s team; under van Bronckhorst, he’s made himself invaluable.
Not only is the former Sheffield United star a real protector of the back four, he also brings substance and drive.
Oh, and he’s not shy throwing himself into crunching tackles and giving his own teammates a good rollicking, as Calvin Bassey found out during the Scottish Cup semi-final for checking on Tom Rogic instead of getting into position.
All of these qualities have made him a fans’ favourite.
Lundstram has shone in recent months, and so has a defender who can count 2021/22 as his breakthrough season.
Bassey is someone supporters love seeing in the team. He’s gone from being a bit-part player to a top performer in quick time.
The Nigerian has also seen his stock rise by showing versatility in switching between centre-back and left-back, excelling in both positions.
With Borna Barisic playing a blinder at left-back against Braga, surely that position is tied up, leaving the 22-year-old to slot into the centre.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Bassey was to impress again in this high-profile match when the eyes of Europe will be watching, alerting more scouts and clubs.
But every player is going to be under scrutiny. Every decision is going to be questioned. And every kick of the ball is going to be watched because what happens on Thursday can set the tone for the whole tie.
Leipzig are tournament favourites and worthy semi-finalists. They were in the last four of European competition just two years ago – in the tournament, the Champions League.
Last season, they reached the last 16 at the top level and started in the top tier this time around, but had the misfortune to be drawn with Manchester City and PSG. Elite opposition.
Any tie that has an Old Firm game sandwiched in between and makes it look smaller is one that demands serious attention.
Tonight’s match in Germany won’t decide who walks out for the final on May 18 in Seville, but if Rangers can summon the type of performance that has marked this run as exceptional, it could present them with a glorious opportunity.
All eyes on the Red Bull Arena.
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