The 2007-08 UEFA Cup campaign is one that will still be fondly at the forefront of many Rangers fans’ memory, even if it didn’t end how they would have liked. The Gers narrowly missed out on the league title to bitter rivals Celtic but scooped the domestic cups and steamrolled their way to their first ever major European final.
Going the whole way to the lift the secondary European cup proved to be a step too far for the famous Glasgow side, as they lost 2-0 to Russian outfit Zenit Saint Petersburg at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester.
However, in the last couple of seasons, Steven Gerrard’s side have given the Ibrox faithful hope that a return to the latter stages of the tournament and possibly even challenging for the trophy isn’t impossible.
When the Gers were pitted against Portuguese side Benfica, who were the fifth biggest spenders in the whole of Europe this summer, Standard Liège and Lech Poznan, not many onlookers would have expected them to qualify from the group without a fight, let alone top the group whilst setting a club record of 14 points from four wins and two draws.
But that is credit to the work that Gerrard has put in with the squad. In the season before the former Liverpool captain’s arrival, Rangers were embarrassingly knocked out of the Europa League in the first qualifying round by minnows Progrès Niederkorn.
However, in the following season, Gerrard guided Rangers to the group stage with ease, but defeats against Spartak Moscow and Rapid Vienna ended the Gers’ hopes of reaching the knockout stages. However, the perseverance and resurgence of Rangers under the rookie manager continued last season, as they progressed from Group G, which included Portuguese giants FC Porto, Feyenoord and Young Boys, before beating Braga to reach the Last 16, where Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen proved to be too strong.
This season, Rangers have feared no foe, easing their way into the group stages once again, even when most had written them off against Turkish giants Galatasaray in the final qualifying round. They proved their doubters wrong again by topping the group, and for that reason, not many people expect Belgian outfit Royal Antwerp to get a result when they meet Gerrard’s side next month.
Antwerp narrowly missed out on top spot in Group J to Tottenham Hotspur, and given Rangers’ form in the competition, which saw them beat Antwerp’s compatriots Standard Liège home and away, the Belgian side’s manager Ivan Leko claims the Gers are the favourites heading into the tie.
“Is it feasible? It is possible, but let’s be honest. Every club with seeded status undoubtedly wanted to play us. They were always going to be the favourite,” Leko said.
Rangers will certainly be jumping with joy to have avoided some of the harder second place sides, like Real Sociedad and Granada of La Liga or another tough encounter with Braga, but the players can’t expect to just dilly dally their way back into the last 16 – Antwerp did defeat José Mourinho’s Spurs after all.
With some of Europe’s biggest clubs still in the competition, winning the Europa League is probably too much to ask from Gerrard’s men, and the online betting market is a fair reflection of that. However, you’d expect Rangers to get past Antwerp, and if they get another favourable draw in the Last 16, they could well be heading deep into the knockout stages!