Rangers face tough test in Lisbon as European adventure resumes

The Ibrox side will face a Benfica team that was recently thumped 5-0 by bitter rivals Porto - and could face an opponent determined to make amends.

Rangers face tough test in Lisbon as European adventure resumes SNS Group

In the midst of the cut and thrust of the Premiership title race, league leaders Rangers face a fresh challenge on Thursday.

Three months after signing off from the Europa League group stage as winners of their section, Philippe Clement’s side are back in action in the continental competition, heading to Estadio da Luz and the first leg of their last 16 tie against Benfica.

Having already triumphed in the League Cup, and with a Scottish Cup quarter-final against Hibs to look forward to on Sunday, the most optimistic Rangers fans are dreaming of success on four fronts this season, with the Europa League undoubtedly the most difficult prize to land.

Progress is likely to depend on a strong showing in this week’s away leg, and Clement and his players are expecting a step up in quality from what they have already face.

Performances against Sparta Prague, Real Betis and Aris Limassol earned a top spot in Group C and meant the Ibrox side could sit the play-off round out and enjoy the benefit of seeding in the draw for the last 16.

Rangers topped their group to qualify but injuries and transfers have changed the squad since then. (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)

That meant they avoided the likes of Liverpool, West Ham or Brighton but were still handed a difficult assignment: two-time European Cup winners and 38-time Portuguese champions Benfica – a side of rich pedigree and impressive recent form.

Current domestic champions, Benfica started this season in the Champions League but defeats to Red Bull Salzburg, Inter Milan and Real Sociedad in their opening three games put paid to any hopes of progress in the elite competition, though the four points they gained from the return fixtures earned the consolation of a Europa League place.

The play-off round of the second tier competition brought a tie against Toulouse, with a 2-1 home win in the first leg leaving things in the balance for the trip to France but a 0-0 draw at the Stadium de Toulouse put them in the hat for the last 16. 

When the draw was made on February 23, Benfica were top of the Primeira Liga on goal difference and, like Rangers, targeting success in the league, cup and in Europe. Ibrox scouts watching the first game after the teams were paired together would have seen them put on a second-half show to thump Portimonense 4-0 and maintain that top spot.

Since then, things have changed in the space of a week. The first leg of the Portuguese Cup semi-final away to Sporting Lisbon ended with a 2-1 defeat and there was worse to come.

Unbeaten in the league in all 23 games they had played this season, Benfica travelled to Porto to face their bitter rivals in O Clássico on Sunday. Victory would have put them back at the top of the league after Sporting’s win earlier in the day had seen the other Lisbon side edge in front.

Instead, Porto ran riot. Brazilian forward Galeno scored twice in the first half and defender Wendell made it 3-0 before Benfica’s veteran stopper Nicolas Otamendi was sent off.

Porto piled on the pressure and scored twice more, through Pepe Aquino and Daniel Namaso, to win 5-0, a record score in the fixture.

Despite recent setbacks, Benfica are aiming for success at home and in Europe. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

Graeme Souness, a former Benfica manager as well as an Ibrox legend, believes Rangers could face an angry opponent determined to make amends for their recent results, and the team has the talent to impress if they are on their game.

Former Red Bull Salzburg, Bayer Levekkusen and PSV manager Roger Schmidt has won trophies in four different countries and led Benfica to the quarter-finals of the Champions League last season, losing to eventual finalists Inter Milan.

Schmidt’s squad has undergone some major changes since then, with the most notable arrivals being Orkun Kökçü joining from Feyenoord for a reported €25m, Arthur Cabral moving from Fiorentina and Angel di Maria returning to the club on a one-year deal.

Di Maria joins fellow World Cup winner Nicolas Otamendi in the squad and the talent isn’t all imported. Veteran Joao Mario brings the experience that earned him 56 international caps to the midfield, while 19-year-old Joao Neves and 20-year old Antonio Silva are both in the current Portugal squad.

That level of player is the main reason Philippe Clement was quick to label his Rangers side as underdogs when the draw was made.

“It’s a really exciting challenge,” the Belgian said. “It’s a very, very good team. I think it will be the first game since I’ve been here that we will be underdogs. That’s the reality.

“But it doesn’t mean we cannot qualify. We believe in our qualities and I think with the mentality that there is in this group now, that we can beat everybody.

“We need to be at our top form and you need to have luck also in key moments in the game.”

Under Clement, Rangers’ top form has been much improved and the side has gone from being written off after Michael Beale’s tenure to title favourites with the bookmakers.

The 49-year-old was in charge for the second half of the group stage, recording a draw away to Sparta Prague, a 1-1 against Aris at home and then a memorable 3-2 victory over Real Betis in Spain.

Since then he’s added to his squad in January, with Mohamed Diomande and Fabio Silva adding to his options for the European ties.

Prior to the surprise defeat against Motherwell last weekend, Rangers had been on a run of ten consecutive wins and if that wasn’t enough to build hope of a result, their recent history against Portuguese opposition might help.

In the last five years, Rangers have met Braga twice and faced Porto and Benfica. Over eight games, they’ve lost only once.

The most recent win over Braga was part of the Ibrox side’s run to the final of the tournament in 2022. Clement’s “underdogs” may be up against one of the bigger beasts of continental competition but in the Europa League especially, Rangers have shown they have some bite of their own and will be hoping to show their pedigree in Lisbon.

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