By Lee Clark.
It felt very much like groundhog day for Rangers and their fans as they slipped to another comprehensive defeat in the Champions League, a second 3-0 reversal in this competition against one of the tournaments bright lights, Napoli.
Giovanni Van Bronckhorst had promised changes to both personnel and approach when he spoke prior to this game and he was true to that, certainly with regards the former, as he made four changes from Saturday’s disaster against Livingston. Sands, Morelos and Wright are no stranger to the Rangers starting XL of course but, perhaps the biggest surprise was the inclusion of much talked about summer signing Ridvan Yilmaz. The Turkish international has seen limited game time since his big money move from Besiktas and whilst the decision to throw him into such a tough away fixture seemed an odd one, he is certainly no stranger to playing in an intimidating atmosphere.
There were also welcome inclusions on the bench for 18-year-old Connor Allan and Alex Lowry. Unfortunately for Rangers the change in approach didn’t quite work out and the light blues yet again found themselves with a mountain to climb, before they really got started as they were caught sleeping at the back in the early stages.
Setting up in a familiar fashion, with two defensive midfielders, Rangers came out the traps slowly, giving the ball away from kick-off and struggled to get any sort of foothold in the match in the opening minutes. Whilst you would expect Napoli to have early possession, Rangers lack of urgency in those opening minutes was asking for trouble and inviting a team, who have completely dismantled both Ajax and Liverpool in this stadium, was only going to end one way. The opening goal, when it arrived was as simple as it was inevitable.
Some early joy downRangers left hand side had done little to jolt Rangers into action as Di Lorenzo found himself in acres of space and with Kent and Sands only able to look on, he whipped a cross into the feet of Diego Simeone, who took a touch before crashing it past McGregor. Five minutes later, Rangers were two behind with a goal that mirrored that of the first. This time, from the left-hand side, Rangers were again caught napping in dealing with the initial cross, as Simeone gratefully bulleted into the net having got in behind King and Davies, as he would several times in the opening 45 minutes.
This was getting serious for the away side and when, the excellent Ndombele crashed a shot off the underside of the bar in the 20th minute, it was starting to feel like it could be a ‘doing’ of Liverpool proportions. Rangers were second to every ball at this stage and when you see the opposition team putting their bodies on the line, when yours seems so sluggish, it’s no wonder Rangers fans are questioning, not only the fitness levels but, their desire to win for this Club. Whilst the quality of Napoli cannot be questioned, the lack of drive or desire to close the ball down in the wide areas, particularly so early in the game was alarming. In short, it was all too easy. Manager Giovanni Van Bronckhorst said, of that opening spell.
We have given away the goals too easily, two times we have a 2 v 1 situation in the box (in our favour). After that I thought we reacted really well and could’ve scored to make it 2-1 just on half time through both Tillman and Morelos.
Whilst what the manager says is technically true, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Whilst both Morelos and Tillman were unlucky with their efforts, it would be a folly not to acknowledge the drop in intensity from the home side after what can only be described as frenzied opening half hour. As it was Rangers went into the break, without grabbing the goal to give them a fighting chance and I don’t think anyone watching could say Napoli weren’t worth their two-goal lead.
Into the second period and Gio did make some positive changes as Sakala replaced the ineffective Wright and John Lundstram was pushed forward alongside Tillman. James Sands was also deployed as a third centre back, when Rangers were out of possession. Whilst Napoli still retained a lot of the ball and pulled a great save out of Allan McGregor on 51 minutes, the away side contained them a lot better and started to look much more of a threat themselves, switching the play and getting into decent areas. Just when you felt it was time for Antonio Colak to be introduced Alfredo Morelos had two gilt edge chances presented to him.
The first must go down as a fantastic block, after his volley from close range, after a Davies glancing header was deflected over for a corner but, the second, only a minute later is the stuff of nightmares. Good work by Ridvan Yilmaz down the left saw his drive across goal find Morelos with an empty net to tap into however the Columbian could only watch in horror as he failed to even connect with the ball. It was an incredible miss from a guy struggling for confidence anyway and this will do little to alleviate that. Morelos was subbed soon after and whilst he linked up well in flashed with Tillman, he is miles off the player of a couple of years ago and I’m sorry to say, another who looks a yard off it. That miss seemed to suck the life out of Rangers and by the time Napoli headed in their third on 80 minutes, the game had descended into the sort of pace you would expect in a friendly, rather than a must win Champions League game. GVB as you would expect, chose to focus on the positives.
In the second half we were well organised defensively, not giving up big chances and had some excellent chances to score, two in particular from Morelos. In the end we concede the third from a set piece but, I think we need to take a lot of positives from the performance. The Champions League is a step up, you need to increase your level. We were up against the top team in Italy right now and I think we gave them a really good game, the two early goals aside.
So, Rangers slump to a fifth successive defeat in this competition and whilst Gio feels there have been improvements, there are serious question marks over this team, not least the fitness levels. That raw energy and sheer will to win that we seen so many times last season, seems to have disappeared, a point illustrated none more so than with Tavernier and Lundstram who seem to have regressed at an alarming rate. With the European adventure done for another season (sorry guys, we ain’t putting five past Ajax) it’s onto league business and a team from the North who never need an invitation to be up for it against us and who will very much fancy their chances given the current displays of this Rangers team.
One final word must go to UEFA and the shocking decision, not to allow Rangers fans into this fixture. The Napoli support, who filled around 70% of the impressive Diego Maradona Stadium, created a raucous atmosphere pre-game however your eyes couldn’t help but, stray to the entirely empty ‘away’ section of the ground which would have housed Rangers equally impressive travelling support. It was a call made on grounds of ‘Sporting Integrity’, we were told although, you have to wonder, on what planet Sporting Integrity means locking out supporters from a stadium in the first place but, particularly in a game where the home side, who rested several players, have already qualified and haven’t come close to filling the place anyway.