It was the cruellest of endings. After a captivating Europa League campaign, Rangers lost to Eintracht Frankfurt 5-4 on penalties in Seville. The narrowest of defeats at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium does not tell the whole story of this superb side. Giovanni van Bronckhorst should keep that in mind as he tries to lift his team for the Scottish Cup Final against Hearts on Saturday. Losing to Frankfurt needn’t be the end of an era. Instead, it can be an early chapter in a period of success.
The story of Rangers is well-told, but it warrants brief repetition. Scotland’s most prolific league champions were on the brink of extinction a decade ago. The reasoning and nature of their survival is nuanced and oft-debated. But what cannot be belittled is the nature of their return to the top. Rangers had to start from the fourth tier, getting promoted from each subsequent level at the first time of asking. Last season, five years after returning to the top flight, they won the Scottish Premiership for the 55th time.
That momentum was supposed to carry Rangers through this season. However, uncertainty over the future of manager Steven Gerrard made for a comparatively disappointing domestic league season. ‘Stevie G’ always had the feel of a coach on loan. For a player who was such a defining part of the English Premier League, he always seemed likely to answer the siren’s call and return if a suitable managerial role came up. Aston Villa ended up being the right fit, and Rangers’ title-winning boss departed six months after lifting the title.
Enter Giovanni van Bronckhorst. Loved at Ibrox as a player, the former ex-Feyenoord manager came in tasked with enlivening not only Rangers’ title chase, but also getting them over the line in terms of qualifying for the Europa League knockout rounds. It’s safe to say the man fans affectionately call ‘Gio’ did a little more than that.
Rangers reached Wednesday’s final in spectacular fashion. In a campaign that will live long in the memory, Borussia Dortmund, Red Star Belgrade, Braga and RB Leipzig were beaten on the way to the final. Even amongst neutrals, the Gers became one of the stories of the tournament. Had final opponents Frankfurt not beaten Barcelona at Camp Nou in their semi-final, Rangers’ 4-2 victory over Dortmund at Signal Iduna Park may have been the upset of the tournament.
The rise has been incredible, but the fall was crushing. 118th minute substitute Aaron Ramsey missed his penalty, deciding the tie as Frankfurt put all five of their spot kicks away. It is a horrifying crescendo for a move that looked restorative for both club and player at the time. The Juventus man joined on loan in January, and many saw his capture as a statement of renewal and intent for Rangers’ season. Instead, the 31-year-old has featured only in fits and starts. Ramsey has appeared in just 13 games for the Gers, starting nine. The fact that a player of Ramsey’s experience was not brought into the fray until two minutes from the end of extra time in Seville tells the story.
Ramsey might get a chance to end his spell in Glasgow on a far better note. Rangers face Hearts on Saturday in the final of the Scottish Cup. The importance of that fixture has ramped up significantly now. After ceding the league to bitter rivals Celtic, and their disappointment in Europe, Rangers have one last chance to end the season with silverware. While it is the third-most prestigious of the prizes on offer, it has become a must-have for Van Bronckhorst’s side.
A win will be a cathartic release, a way to wash away the disappointment of Seville and end the season smiling. One need only look at last season’s Europa League Final to see how defeat can hang over a team. Manchester United have scarcely looked like the same side since their own penalty shootout defeat in Europe’s secondary final a year ago. Rangers have the benefit of one more game to rescue something from the season, and to quickly put their final defeat behind them.
If they do so, there will be plenty to cheer about for Rangers fans. A title, a European final, a 34th go-round with the Scottish Cup is not bad for two seasons' work. The building blocks of an era of success perhaps? Contrast Liverpool’s response to a Europa League final defeat during Jurgen Klopp’s first season with the United example. While the Red Devils have capitulated, Klopp learned his lessons and embarked on Liverpool’s greatest modern era of success. Winning the Champions League is obviously a far harder proposition for a Scottish side these days, but the principles are sound. Rangers can use the experiences of this season to fortify their foundations and kick on.
Wednesday night will sting for a while. What Van Bronckhorst and Rangers must not do is let it consume them. Just getting to the final was a huge achievement, and they acquitted themselves well in the showpiece. Now they must take what they have learned into Saturday’s game and end the season on a high. If Rangers can do that, who knows what lays ahead next season. This could be the start of an era.
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