The last time a Scottish side made the semi-finals of the Europa League it wasn’t even called the Europa League. Indeed, Walter Smith’s Rangers team made a run to the final of the UEFA Cup in 2008 just five years after Martin O’Neill’s Celtic side made it just as far in the same competition. Since the rebrand to the Europa League, though, no Scottish club has appeared in the final four.
— UEFA Europa League (@EuropaLeague) April 25, 2022
That will change this week when Rangers face RB Leipzig for a place in this season’s Europa League final. The Ibrox outfit, who have already seen off Borussia Dortmund, Red Star Belgrade and Braga in the competition, are just three games away from winning a continental trophy for only the second time in its history.
Furthermore, Rangers are just three games from pulling off the greatest achievement of any Scottish team in the modern era. Not since 1983 has a club from the country won a major European title and that was so long ago Sir Alex Ferguson was still seen as a young, up-and-coming manager.
Scottish teams are no longer expected to get this far in continental competition. The financial gulf between the country’s top flight and the ‘Big Five’ leagues has grown to such an extent that the team that finishes rock bottom of the Premier League this season will receive nearly 30 times more prize money than the team that wins the Scottish Premiership.
Rangers’ financial meltdown 10 years ago forced Scottish football to reconsider its place in the sport’s landscape. Without two clubs consistently competing in Europe, the country’s co-efficient plummeted. Scottish football suffered something of an identity crisis as its teams continued to drift further and further away from the elite level.
Now, though, Scottish teams are once again competitive in continental competition. Rangers have made it further in the Europa League season-on-season for the last three years while Hearts are guaranteed to be in the group stages of the Europa Conference League next season after making the Scottish Cup final and finishing third in the league.
There is no reason for Rangers to fear RB Leipzig despite the German outfit’s obvious quality. This is a team that has grown to embrace the big occasion with Ibrox a fortress for them in continental competition this season – only Lyon have beaten Rangers in front of their own supporters over the course of this Europa League run.
While Rangers have struggled domestically at times this season, European competition has brought the best out of them. Against low defensive blocks, van Bronckhorst’s team often run out of ideas. In quick transition, though, Rangers are extremely dangerous, as Borussia Dortmund found to their cost in a 4-2 defeat at the Westfalenstadion. European football suits them better.
🏅 Men's Player of the Year Award | #RangersPOTY
— Rangers Football Club (@RangersFC) April 24, 2022
Of course, injuries have depleted van Bronckhorst’s squad with Alfredo Morelos and Kemar Roofe sidelined for the semi-final against RB Leipzig. Aaron Ramsey, who had finally started to find his feet following a January loan switch from Juventus, will also be missing, robbing Rangers of match-winning quality when they need it most.
Nonetheless, Rangers are a force to be reckoned with. Ryan Kent has kept his best performances for the Europa League this season while James Tavernier is a reliable source of goals and creativity from right back. The in-form John Lundstram will also be a physical presence in the centre of the pitch against RB Leipzig.
Decades ago, Scottish clubs consistently competed for major European honours. Celtic became the first British team to win the European Cup in 1967 while Aberdeen, Dundee United and Rangers all enjoyed success in the European Cup Winners’ Cup and UEFA Cup in the 1970s and 80s. A lot has changed since then, but a Scottish team is once again making its mark on the continent.