By David Herd
Rangers welcome Real Betis to Ibrox on Thursday as the Europa League group C fixtures begin. The recent pain of humiliation in Eindhoven, swiftly followed by dismal defeat to an understrength Celtic, has piled the pressure on Michael Beale, with this the first Ibrox fixture since the home fans made their displeasure loud and clear at the final whistle after the Old Firm defeat. The manager seems to have lost the trust of a significant proportion of the fanbase, and it feels like the next painful defeat could be his last.
Betis represent tough opposition. Their squad contains some well-known players who have plenty medals. We could see Isco, formerly of Real Madrid, Hector Bellarin, formerly of Arsenal, and goalkeeper Claudio Bravo who played for Barcelona and Manchester City. Betis have made a solid start to their domestic season having already beaten Villareal away from home and gained a creditable home draw with Atletico Madrid in La Liga. But their domestic campaign experienced a dose of reality on Saturday when they suffered a 5-0 thrashing at the Nou Camp against La Liga champions Barcelona.
While Betis were up against stars like Lewandowski, De Jong and Gundogan at the weekend, Rangers were in Perth facing a St Johnstone team who hadn’t won a league fixture in the new season and who were sitting last in the Scottish Premiership. The solid, if uninspiring, 2-0 win at least ended the recent miserable defeats, although the injury to big-money striker Danilo means he now will miss several weeks of the season and will be missing on Thursday as well as talisman Todd Cantwell.
Even although the Scottish national team is currently sitting above their Spanish counterparts in World Cup qualifying, there’s no doubt that football in Spain is at an entirely different level to the fare on offer to fans in Scotland, and the record Rangers have in competitive European matches against Spanish clubs shows the size of challenge awaiting Beale and his men. This will be the 14th time the stadium has welcomed visitors from Spain in one of the major European competitions, and it’s a long time since the Rangers fans have been able to cheer a victory. Here is the full list of the thirteen previous battles between Rangers and Spanish opponents:
1962/63 European Cup-Winners’ Cup First Round
Rangers 4 (Millar 3, Brand) Seville 0
Rangers lost 2-0 in Spain, so progressed 4-2 on aggregate.
1963/64 European Cup First Round
Rangers 0 Real Madrid 1
Rangers lost 6-0 in Spain, going out 7-0 on aggregate.
1966/67 European Cup-Winners’ Cup Quarter Final
Rangers 2 (D Smith, Willoughby) Real Zaragoza 0
Rangers lost 2-0 in Spain, and progressed on the toss of a coin after a 2-2 aggregate.
1968/69 Fairs Cup Quarter Final
Rangers 4 (Ferguson, Penman, Persson, Stein) Athletic Bilbao 1
Rangers lost 2-0 in Spain, progressing 4-3 on aggregate.
1979/80 European Cup-Winners’ Cup Second Round
Rangers 1 (Johnstone) Valencia 3
Rangers had drawn 1-1 in Spain in the first leg, going out 4-2 on aggregate.
1985/86 UEFA Cup First Round
Rangers 1 (Paterson) Osasuna 0
Rangers lost 2-0 in Spain, going out 2-1 on aggregate.
1999/2000 Champions League Group Stage
Rangers 1 (Moore) Valencia 2
Rangers had lost 2-0 in Spain, and finished third in the group.
2005/06 Champions League Last 16
Rangers 2 (Lovenkrands, Own Goal) Villareal 2
Rangers drew 1-1 in Spain and went out on away goals.
2006/07 UEFA Cup Last 16
Rangers 1 (Hemdani) Osasuna 1
Rangers lost 1-0 in Spain, going out 2-1 on aggregate.
2007/08 Champions League Group Stage
Rangers 0 Barcelona 0
Rangers lost 2-0 in Spain, and finished third in the group.
2009/10 Champions League Group Stage
Rangers 1 (Novo) Sevilla 4
Rangers lost 1-0 in Spain, and finished last in the group.
2010/11 Champions League Group Stage
Rangers 1 (Edu) Valencia 1
Rangers lost 3-0 in Spain, and finished third in the group.
2018/19 Europa League Group Stage
Rangers 0 Villareal 0
Rangers had drawn 2-2 in Spain, and finished third in the group.
There are a lot of stories within these individual matches (Osasuna in 1985 was the wettest night I’ve ever seen at a football match), as well as memorable Ibrox appearances by genuinely world-class players such as Puskas, Kempes, Requelme and Messi. But the plain statistics show a home record so far of:
Played 13 Won 4 Drawn 5 Lost 4
Add this to the fact that we have never won a competitive European match away from home in any of these pervious thirteen attempts, and you can see the weight of history is against Michael Beale’s team. Rangers haven’t beaten a Spanish team at Ibrox since 1985, with no wins in the last seven attempts. We have never finished above a Spanish team in any group stage, nor finished in the top two in any group containing a Spanish side. The last time we eliminated a team from Spain was in 1969, when Scottish club football was far better able to compete with the best of the continent.
But history is all about the past, it doesn’t automatically decide the future. Records are made to be broken. I suspect Ibrox won’t be the noisy full-house before kick-off that became the norm in recent seasons, but if the team on the pitch get it right, the stadium will still rock. To get it right, it will take our defence to cut out their habit of falling asleep in big games, our midfield to find their best form, and for our attackers to justify their expensive price tags. And it will take the manager to do the simple thing of playing a formation that fits players into the roles they are best suited.
I feel we need to stop talking about our impressive European results in recent times and the incredible journey we all had in 2021/22 that ended in us being a penalty kick away from immortality. That was a different Rangers team, it serves as no more than a reminder of what is possible. This is a new team with it all to prove. It feels like the Rangers team of 2023/24 needs a big result in a big game. There would be no better time than now to produce it.