“I’m looking forward to all the games,” said the Rangers manager, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, after learning of their Champions League fate. “I am happy with the draw because we’re going to play some great games against tough opponents.”
Two and a half months later, Rangers are close to being the worst group-stage team in the competition’s history. Home and away defeats against Liverpool and Napoli, in addition to an opening-game thrashing at Ajax, leave Rangers pointless and with a -18 goal difference before the return fixture on Tuesday against the Dutch side.
The only team to have fared worse are Dinamo Zagreb, who in the 2011-12 season finished with no points and a -19 goal difference. Also in contention for their unwanted title are Viktoria Plzen, whose reward for battling through qualifying rounds was to face three of the continent’s most historic clubs: Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Internazionale and their collective 14 European Cups.
It has left the Czech team awaiting the Grim Reaper to end the misery when they are at home to Barcelona on Tuesday. Like Rangers, they are yet to muster even a draw but they are one better off in the goal difference column, despite conceding 20 times in five games.
Every Rangers and Plzen player will be desperate to avoid being associated with an underwhelming, record-breaking accomplishment. There is, however, no great shame in teams from Scotland and the Czech Republic succumbing to richer continental neighbours. Plzen’s manager, Michal Bilek, said: “I’ve talked with the guys about how incredible it feels to be in a group like this.”
Many of those in either squad could never have imagined playing at the Camp Nou, Anfield or San Siro. In many ways, they did not stand a chance of progressing.
Europe is supposed to be a reward for the hard work put in the previous season, but it could prove the undoing of Van Bronckhorst. He is under pressure after his team slipped behind Celtic in the Scottish Premiership and failed to soften the blow with spirited displays in the Champions League. The 7-1 defeat to Liverpool was greeted with boos.
Jürgen Klopp’s side were greeted by a ferocious Ibrox atmosphere that became even more raucous when Scott Arfield gave Rangers the lead with their solitary goal in the competition so far. But when Liverpool can call on Mohamed Salah to come off the bench and score a six‑minute hat-trick, it is a sign of the difficulties faced by a side who spent the summer shopping for bargains in the hope of creating a squad capable of competing at the highest level. Rangers lost Calvin Bassey for £17m and replaced him with someone who cost a fifth of that.
Dinamo’s miserable group stage came against Real Madrid, Lyon and Ajax. They started with a 1-0 defeat against a Madrid side containing Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso, to name but a few among others. Such a result might have provided a platform for the group minnows to build on but they failed to score in the first four games and lost the final two 6-2 and 7-1.
Within the Dinamo ranks were future World Cup finalists Sime Vrsaljko and Domagoj Vida, and Mateo Kovacic, who was on the bench for that final but has won the Champions League four times. Rangers and Plzen players can take heart that a pathway exists to better things and this six-game spell will not define their careers.
Rangers are unlikely to make the Europa League given that they must beat Ajax by five goals to finish third. It was a competition that gave players and fans joy last season, Rangers knocking out Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig before losing on penalties to Eintracht Frankfurt in the final. PSV were dispatched in August’s Champions League playoff and they beat the Premier League leaders, Arsenal, last week but the step up to the top table has proved too far for Rangers.
Their supporters will have hoped the club would give bloody noses to their more esteemed rivals. Rangers have been far too passive, hindered by their defensive nature in Europe, trying to contain teams even though they have little chance of doing so. Instead of getting in opponents’ faces and trying to put them off their gameplan, they have left questions what might have been if they had utilised a more aggressive style.