|Europa League final: Eintracht Frankfurt v Rangers|
|Venue: Estadio Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan, Seville Date: Wednesday, 18 May Kick-off: 20:00 BST|
|Coverage: Listen to live commentary on Sportsound and follow live text updates on the BBC Sport website & app|
Amid the bedlam, the one constant source of calm crumbled to dust in an explosion of euphoria.
The shriek of a whistle which triggered it was almost inaudible. As a place in the Europa League final had been astonishingly slogged out, Rangers’ players looked at each other in disbelief, the club’s emotionally drained supporters sang and danced in the stands, while the Ibrox television gantry shuddered and shook.
Beneath it on the touchline, the normally composed image of Giovanni van Bronckhorst turned to the main stand, clenched his fists, and roared up at those jubilantly staring back.
This mesmeric run to stiflingly hot Seville has meant so much to so many, not to mention the 100,000 expected to cook in the Spanish sun in the coming days. Van Bronckhorst, a league winner as player and coach who has also featured in a World Cup final, is no stranger to the big occasion. But he is no different.
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Just six months ago, the Dutchman sat at the back of the stand on a dark day at Hampden as his soon-to-be team were outclassed by Hibernian in a Scottish League Cup semi-final. It was the clear low point of the Scottish champions’ season, and signalled the job the former Ibrox defender had on his hands.
Yet after the darkness comes the light – and the spotlight – of the club’s first European final in 14 years. With the backdrop of a spluttering league campaign, Rangers – who are also Scottish Cup finalists this weekend – have turned in performances under Van Bronckhorst which rightly have many believing the Dutchman is about to mastermind a Scottish club’s first European trophy since 1983.
Van Bronckhorst’s coaching journey
Van Bronckhorst’s predecessor in Glasgow was seen as a coaching gamble. Steven Gerrard walked into Ibrox for his first managerial post, eventually bringing a league title and laying the foundations for the Glasgow club to build a European launchpad. Before any of that had even started, though, something special was going on in Rotterdam.
In 2017, Van Bronckhorst, stepping out of the shadows of former bosses Ronald Koeman and Fred Rutten, orchestrated Feyenoord’s first Eredivisie title for 18 years, a campaign in which the former player kept his team top from the first weekend to the last. Not a bad feat for his first full term as boss.
“He’s very much a people person, from the staff to the players,” Brad Jones, Feyenoord’s goalkeeper that year, told BBC Sport. “Not many players were complaining about him, whether they were in the team or not, which isn’t always the case.
“He’s very genuine, easy to get along with. But at the same time commanded that respect a coach needs. He knew how to work people in terms of the personalities and how different players tick.
“He is definitely a coach who makes players better. It wasn’t an easy group of players we had, we had some difficult characters. But when the players all want to work for the coach, it’s a massive thing.”
For all that excitement, Van Bronckhorst’s team could not replicate their title achievement again, with a fourth- and third-placed finish. However, he would enjoy further success with two Dutch Cups and two Johan Cruyff Shields before departing De Kuip for China and a short spell at Guangzhou.
Building on Gerrard’s legacy?
In giving credit to Van Bronckhorst, it’s important to acknowledge the impact of his predecessor.
During his three full seasons at Ibrox, Gerrard’s pursuit of a league title – and the patience afforded to him to do so by fans – was underpinned by a series of sojourns in Europe.
Under the former Liverpool captain, Rangers regularly played entertaining football as they reached the knockout stages of the Europa League, beating Feyenoord and Porto and drawing with Benfica. But Van Bronckhorst has taken it to a whole new level.
Rangers’ form on the continent this term was in stark contrast to what it had been in the previous weeks and months under Gerrard.
A long-awaited crack at Champions League qualifying was over before you could say covid passport in a humbling by Malmo. And when the familiarity of the Europa League beckoned, a solitary Alfredo Morelos goal was all Gerrard’s team could muster to nervously edge by Alashkert of Armenia. Defeats by Lyon and Sparta Prague in the group followed, before a win and draw against Brondby offered some hope of progress.
But under their new boss, Rangers found their way and their groove. Four points from their final two games propelled them from the group, with the mighty Borussia Dortmund, Red Star Belgrade, Braga and RB Leipzig beaten since.
So how good are Van Bronckhorst’s Rangers in Europe?
Bad teams don’t get to European finals, and this group under the former Barcelona man have proven they can create magic moments on these nights. That Ibrox gantry and a dancing Ally McCoist live on TV will testify to that.
But things have been particularly promising in the past six months, and look set to continue that way.
Nielsen Gracenote’s Euro Club Index has Rangers 45th in Europe, matching the highest point of Gerrard’s tenure, with that figure still continuing on a sharp upwards trajectory.
“Since Van Bronckhorst took over from Gerrard, the team has again improved back to the peak level which Gerrard had achieved over a year ago,” said Simon Gleave, the firm’s head of analysis.
“This has mainly been achieved via the European performances which have pushed Rangers back up to 45th with an ECI of 2,856. This is the highest ECI for Rangers since the Euro Club Index launched in 2007.”
The improvement this season alone can also be seen.
Rangers’ goals per game rate has gone from 0.75 under Gerrard to 1.9, and that’s while averaging 1.9 fewer shots per match. Their expected goals (xG) tally now sits at 1.9 under Van Bronckhorst, up 0.6 from their previous boss.
As the attack strengthens, it’s worth pointing out that while the average shots conceded has only gone up 0.1 with the Dutchman, his side are facing over four more shots each game, have a xG against of 1.6 compared to 1 beforehand, and have dropped over 5% in possession.
Heroic saves from Allan McGregor may explain why the goals conceded figure hasn’t budged much despite the stopper being kept busier, while keeping things tight away from home in the knockouts may account for the drop in possession.
Regardless, Van Bronckhorst has shown he is capable of pulling a tactical rabbit out of the hat. Has he got one left?
Van Bronckhorst now has that chance – analysis
Former Rangers defender and BBC Scotland pundit Richard Foster
He’s definitely built on what Gerrard did, but there are differences. The emergence of John Lundstram has been key. He was finding his feet under Gerrard but he’s transformed into one of their most important players.
He’s mixed the two of being attack-minded and quick on the break, but also having that organisation and flexibility of moving Lundstram into the back three when necessary.
It’s that adaptability in defence and potency in attack.
One of the biggest changes is that his wingers play wider, it’s a Dutch way of doing it. I think it’s helped Ryan Kent in the European games because he always finds time and space.
Both have done well, but Van Bronckhorst now has that chance to go and win the trophy.
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