It is perhaps telling that if the blueprint of Rangers’ run to the Europa League final was to be rolled out on a dusty workbench and examined in fine detail, those looking for the secret ingredient in Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side would realise they had been staring at it all along.
There are, simply, few secrets to be found in their success. As a football team Rangers are not particularly polished and certainly don’t exude a gleam of attacking football to stop and marvel over. But on nights such as Thursday they are ferocious and breathless and devilishly addictive. Occasions and performances like these don’t come around too often, but you would pay just a bit more for another hit of one.
Such was the scene at Ibrox following their 3-1 win over RB Leipzig, as men looked around in shock and with tears in their eyes as if they had witnessed the wrath of God. The Rangers players stared back up into the stands – their faces mirrored with disbelief but also slightly overawed, as if the noise these supporters had produced had reached them on a deeper level. Ally McCoist, who has really seen it all when it comes to this club, struggled to take it all in.
Rangers, you see, had done it again. They had overturned a first leg defeat in Germany to stun RB Leipzig, a club which started the season in the Champions League and operate on a budget befitting of that level, and in front of their own fans had produced a performance to bridge the financial inequalities of European football that now stack the odds against teams like the Scottish champions from reaching this stage.
It has been a week for examining the DNA of a big European night, for picking apart the chemical composition of a European comeback, and working out what makes the impossible, possible. From the Bernabeu to Ibrox, the answer stretches out into the realm of the unquantifiable.
On many levels, clubs like Real Madrid and Rangers exist and operate in different spheres. But what they share, through being two of European football’s great old clubs, is the belief they belong on stages such as these. There may not have been the Glaswegian equivalent of the “los reyes de europa” banner unveiled at the Bernabeu before Real Madrid defeated Manchester City on Tuesday, but there was the same inherent sense the night had been built for them.
For Rangers, this central character complex survived even when they were demoted down to the fourth tier of Scottish football. Even if nine years ago this week Rangers were playing away to East Stirlingshire, they retained the assertion, enforced by previous decades of expecting success, that they belonged at the top table. Rangers have been through some tough days and longer nights but when the occasions have come in Europe this season they have barely skipped a beat.
You don’t get these nights without having what came before, and the atmosphere at Ibrox again hit different levels. For an RB Leipzig side who are well used to being on the receiving end of vitriol on their travels throughout the Bundesliga, the waves of noise left them broken up and looking like a collection of lost individuals on the shore. Rangers’ starting line-up at Ibrox cost approximately £12m. RB Leipzig spent £17m alone in signing the Croatia defender Josko Gvardiol from Dinamo Zagreb.
But Rangers possess something more. How else could you explain what they have managed to achieve? They have outlasted the cast-offs from the Champions League – the vehicle which has inadvertently contributed to such financial inequalities in the European game – to reach the final. Rangers themselves defeated both Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig, but have also gone further than Barcelona, Sevilla, Atalanta and Porto. They are also the first team outside of Europe’s top five leagues to reach the Europa League final since Ajax in 2017.
There are levels to this, admittedly. It would be nice that if Rangers were to win the Europa League and qualify for next season’s Champions League, there would be a chance to go on a similar run – but the instances of Villarreal, Lyon, Ajax and Monaco are thin and growing ever thinner, as the odds stacked against those cut adrift from the elite become ever heavier.
The truth is, though, the Europa League, and the Europa Conference League below it, is where those unquantifiables can spin and run into becoming greater stories. That is what has got Rangers through to their first European final since 2008. It can be a truly powerful thing when a team is in unison with its support, both fuelling each other to reach such unexpected heights. Greater yet when they have the chance to show it’s where they should have been all along.