Where do you even start? When the draw was made for the first knockout round of this year’s Europa League, it was dubbed by pundits and punters alike as the best edition of the continent’s second-tier competition in years — with the likes of Barcelona, RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund, sides more used to the glamour of the latter stages of the Champions League, featuring in the pot for the round of 32.
But, while many dreamed of a Barça vs BVB final at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium in Seville, the Europa League has produced a script that not even the best of Hollywood’s writers could have come with — as it’s underdogs Glasgow Rangers who will jet off to sunny Spain to take on Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt in a final that the football odds from Betfair could have never predicted.
After all that Rangers fans have been through over the last decade or so, the 2008 UEFA Cup final — when Walter Smith’s side succumbed to Zenit St. Petersburg in Manchester — would have felt like a distant memory. But almost nine years to the day since lifting the Scottish third division title, the ‘Gers booked their place in the competition’s showpiece match for the second time.
It certainly hasn’t always been plain sailing for the Ibrox side though. Drawn in Group A with Lyon, Sparta Prague and Brøndby, Rangers lost their opening two games of the tournament against the French and Czech Republic sides — eventually beating Brøndby 2-0 in Glasgow to get off the mark in terms of points.
But it would still be an uphill climb to progress from the group, and after a 1-1 draw away to the Danes, Rangers had to beat Sparta at home to book their place in the next round. And, in what was Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s first game since taking over Aston Villa-bound Steven Gerrard, the Gers delivered — winning 2-0. A 1-1 draw away to Lyon rounded off the group.
The first knockout round is where this story was supposed to end. Paired with tournament favourites Dortmund in the play-off, Rangers weren’t given any chance of beating the German side in the betting tips for today’s matches ahead of the tie. But the underdogs ran them rampant at Signal Iduna Park, knocking down the ‘Yellow Wall’ with a stunning 4-2 victory.
Even ahead of the second tie, Marco Rose’s side were expected to spare their blushes at Ibrox. But Van Bronckhorst’s dogged side had other ideas, and a dramatic 2-2 draw, which could have easily been another Rangers win had Alfredo Morelos’ goal not been controversially ruled out by VAR, was enough to see them send a red-faced Dortmund packing.
Ties against Red Star Belgrade and Braga would still prove difficult. But they certainly looked more winnable on paper, and Rangers prevailed with 4-2 and 3-2 aggregate victories over the Serbian and Portuguese outfits — turning over a 1-0 away defeat against the latter with a 3-1 win at Ibrox.
Despite previous upsets, few gave Van Bronckhorst’s men a chance again against new Europa League favourites RB Leipzig in the semi-finals. However, the Gers held their own out in Germany, with a good defensive display unwrapped in the dying embers as Angeliño’s stunning volley flew past Allan McGregor with just minutes to spare.
That left Rangers with their work cut out in Glasgow. But the cauldron that is Ibrox is one of the hardest places to go in Europe and with the players spurred on by the recent death of the club’s legendary kitman Jimmy Bell, they once again turned things around — with James Tavernier and Glen Kamara giving the hosts a two-goal lead, before Christopher Nkunku levelled the aggregate scores with 15 minutes left.
But just as Rangers looked to be out of steam and Leipzig were expected to capitalise, John Lundstram stepped up and found Rangers’ third goal of the night — sending Ibrox into absolute delirium. The final 10 minutes would have been the most nervous Rangers fans have felt in years, but when the final whistle went, Ibrox was bouncing.
The stage is set against Frankfurt in Seville. It will not be an easy night against their third German opponent, but with one last big push from Rangers, you just never know what could happen in Spain!