By Lee Clark
Five months ago, ‘Rangers’ was the name on everyone’s lips across football. Some stirring performances had the whole of Europe talking, as they battled against all the odds to reach the Europa League Final. In some parts, the Champions League had become somewhat of a sideshow as the light blues, along with eventual winners, Eintracht Frankfurt captured the imagination of footballing nations, as both sides were driven through the rounds with the sort of hunger, passion, grittiness and fight which is so often missing from elite level competition. Tonight, the Europa League winners took another step forward as they qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League and were actually only an injury time goal away from topping their group. In stark contrast, Rangers limped out of the competition, with yet another comprehensive reversal at Ibrox, in a campaign that has shown them up to be miles short of where they need to be at this level and of course take away that unwanted ‘title’ of ‘Worst Ever Champions League Campaign’.
With The Gers requiring a huge victory to have any hope of progression, I felt before the game that this one was a dead rubber and I think most fans would’ve agreed and even accepted that. What they won’t accept was the timid, lifeless performance they witnessed which confined their team to a sixth straight defeat in the competition. Long before Ajax scored their third goal, (the 22nd that Rangers had conceded in the group stages) this game was being played at a snail’s pace. After Saturday’s mauling of Aberdeen, I thought this game could provide a platform for the team to build upon, going into the winter break but instead, they seemed to fall off a cliff. Rangers (or Ajax for that matter) didn’t seem up for this one at all and the crowd responded in kind. Sure, the sizable away support made a racket at times but, this was two teams playing very much within themselves and for Ajax that meant a fairly easy day at the office, as the pace rarely peaked above that of a friendly. No crunching tackles, no lung bursting runs, no one looking to take any risks. It was all a little boring really and despite a late flurry from the home side when James Tavernier pulled a goal back from the spot, after another inexplicable miss from Alfredo Morelos, Ajax duly restored their two-goal lead to run out deserved 3-1 winners on the night. James Tavernier:
We have not done ourselves justice and we have not given the fans the minimum that they wanted. We will own up to that and can only apologise. It’s a learning curve and we need to improve especially in this competition and we obviously want to do better. In the first half I believe we could have fought a bit more and lacked that bit of hunger. In the second it was better but, you can’t wait 45 minutes to get going
Whilst some will appreciate his honesty, for others they will be tearing their hair out. I’ve said it until I’m blue in the face on this platform and to anyone that will listen, that when this particular group of players start a game quickly; with energy, with application and with desire they are capable of very very big moments. I mean, how many examples do we need to keep citing for it to sink in? Of course, we knew we were up against it tonight. With the number of injuries and suspension, I felt the Managers’ hands were tied with this one from the outset. We went into the game with a midfielder and eighteen-year-old as our centre backs and that’s before you get to older hands Davis and Arfield asked to supply the craft from midfield but, even still? Surely that can’t excuse the passive, acceptance of another inevitable defeat? Like a few others, I was realistic about tonight, I knew a victory was unlikely, particularly when I seen the respective starting XI’s but, I genuinely could not believe how slow and cumbersome we seemed, especially after Saturday’s explosive display where things seemed to click both on and off the pitch. I asked Giovanni Van Bronkhorst if he could explain why there was such a difference:
It’s a different level. We tried to press high (again) but this is a team who is used to avoiding that with their movement and this is also not a team who is operating at the Champions League level for the first time. We all know the Ajax school and how comfortable they are on the ball and I think they showed that as well. You could also see there was a difference in freshness, they didn’t have a game at the weekend so had six days to prepare compared with our two.
Knowing the Rangers support, as I do, that final comment is sure to raise more than a few eyebrows and that’s being kind. Is it a valid point? I think so however, many will rightly point to last season where Rangers played two games in a matter of days, which both went to extra time and both ended up in victories. In any case, Gio has been around the Scottish game long enough to know that it’ll be a cold day in hell before anyone running our game employs any sort of joined up thinking on such matters and for me, the bigger concern is the missing personnel. Ten first team players missing, does not make for good reading at any time but, for some it’s becoming less and less likely that we will see anything meaningful from them ever again in a blue shirt. Gio, to his credit has never and won’t ever use that as an excuse:
I will never use this as an excuse, my job is to coach the team and coach the players I have available. Of course, I don’t like that we have so many injuries but I can only focus on the players I can pick. That’s the job. We now have to switch back to the league and try to win the tournaments that we are still involved in.
So, for the first time in a while there will be no European football at Ibrox after Christmas. A campaign that promised so much, after the highs of that memorable night in Eindhoven, has seen us bow out with a bit of a whimper. As I’ve stated many times, defeats you can handle but, I think the players and manager will feel they haven’t left enough out there on the pitch and that is what will sting the most. Certainly, that’s the case for the support who will travel to Perth on Sunday wondering what Rangers team is going to turn up? I said a few weeks agio that the manager’s job shouldn’t be in doubt following results at the elite level of European competition, no matter how raging we are with some of the performances (and believe me, I am). I know many disagree but, I stand by that statement. What I will say is, there really is now no hiding place. Last season Europe became a very welcome distraction as we capitulated in the League title race and whilst we progressed through the rounds, many were able to put that to one side.
Do I think Gio can take this group any further than he already has? I’d be lying if I said ‘yes’ to that, with any sort of conviction but, I do think a reality check is needed for some. The manager and his staff are going nowhere fast and as stated on Saturday priority must now be to get to this winter break, with no more damage done and get this squad refreshed and key faces back to fitness. Whoever is available, Saturday’s performance against Aberdeen proves that they do have it in them and it must now be the benchmark. Anything less simply won’t do!