Rangers begin their Champions League group stage campaign on Wednesday at the home of iconic Dutch club Ajax Amsterdam.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst and his players go up against the group top seeds in the first of a series of tough fixtures, with Liverpool and Napoli lying in wait for the weeks to come.
The Ibrox side came through two rounds of qualifying to reach the elite stage of the competition, and have been rewarded with ties against some of Europe’s biggest names, but will now concentrate on trying to start the group stage with a positive result against the odds.
As Europa League finalists last year, Van Bronckhorst’s side have already forged a reputation for stepping up to tough challenges in continental football, and have already accounted for one Dutch side this season when beating PSV Eindhoven in the play-off to reach this stage.
However, the Ibrox side are looking to bounce back from a chastening 4-0 defeat at the hands of Celtic on Saturday.
Ajax, like Celtic, go into the game having had a perfect start to the league season, but are a club that faced substantial change in recent months, with many of last season’s leading lights having departed.
Manager Erik ten Haag left in the summer to join Manchester United, and then plucked Lisandro Martinez and Antony from the Amsterdam club to join him in England. Ryan Gravenberch and Noussair Mazraoui both headed to Bayern Munich, while Sebastien Haller made a move to Borussia Dortmund and Nicolas Tagliafico departed for Lyon.
Ajax have a reputation for rebuilding teams though, and new head coach Alfred Schreuder has brought in new faces to go along with products of the club’s envied youth system and a squad that still includes the likes of Daley Blind, Jurrien Timber and Dusan Tadic.
Steven Bergwijn has joined form Spurs and already has six goals from just five games. Brian Brobbey has returned from RB Leipzig on a permanent deal and could lead the attacking line on Wednesday.
Francisco Conceicao was signed from Porto and promising defender named Calvin Bassey was prised from Rangers for a €23m fee.
Schreuder’s team are favourites but he said he is wary of the Scottish side, refusing to put too much importance on the derby result and pointing out the big names that Rangers have beaten over the last year.
“They are a very experienced team with an experienced coach,” he said. “I don’t look at what happened against Celtic, I look more at the PSV game.
“In Glasgow, PSV were the better team, although Rangers did well in Eindhoven.
“Every game is on itself and that is also the case tomorrow. It is a new challenge for us.”
While the Ajax boss can dismiss the Celtic result, Van Bronckhorst is in a different position and he found himself having to defend the decision not to add to his squad at the end of the transfer window.
Though he admits he has to review the mistakes made against Celtic, the Dutchman was adamant he won’t make wholesale changes to either his team or his system as he returns to his homeland looking for a boost.
“So I could change everything from Saturday and play with a different team tomorrow, different tactics,” he said. “But I think you have to keep hold of your way of playing.
“You keep trusting your players and give them confidence because in the past we have bounced back from heavy defeats and that’s what we have to do tomorrow as well.”
Though Ajax are the group’s top seeds, the strength of the group means there’s no real prospect of the Dutch side running away with the section and leaving others to battle it out for second place. Rangers’ ambitions to play European football after Christmas will depend on them being competitive in every game, and a strong away result to kick off the group would be of huge value.
Captain James Tavernier said in the build-up to the game that the players are keen to put the Celtic result behind them, and they have the opportunity to change headlines with a strong performance on the biggest stage.
“The good thing about European football is you have a midweek game and (the chance to) really bounce back to the performances you want to do, to rectify things,” he said.
“From the first whistle we’ll be trying to put the performance in that deserves credit for the team and put the performance in for the fans.”