|Europa League: RB Leipzig v Rangers|
|Venue: Red Bull Arena, Leipzig Date: Thursday, 28 April Kick-off: 20:00 BST|
|Coverage: Follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport website & app|
Harry Houdini pulled off a few feats in his time, the one where he was shackled and handcuffed and put inside the carcass of a beached whale wrapped in chains only to emerge smiling 15 minutes later was a proper crowd pleaser.
Apparently, half his audience collapsed with shock when they saw him emerging from the mammal’s belly, a bit like how half the audience – or more – collapsed with shock when Rangers stuck four on Dortmund in their own place in the first knockout round of the Europa League.
We’re guessing that a similar bemused look would have appeared on the faces of football folk in this country had you told them back in September that Rangers, with one win from six games in Europe to that point, would be playing in a Europa League semi-final before the season was out.
This was a Rangers team that had been dumped from the Champions League by Malmo and had started their Europa League group campaign with losses to Lyon and Sparta Prague without scoring a single goal.
They’d also lost to Dundee United and drawn with Motherwell. A European semi-final? You’d have been laughed out of town had you aired that notion back then. Had you floated it on Twitter you’d have sparked social media’s greatest pile-on. The reaction would have been merciless.
But here they are. They’ve already played 16 games in European competition this season and games 17 and 18 will determine whether they make the Europa League final.
Nobody expects them to do it but then nobody expected them to make it out of the group stage after the first two rounds and not even Broxi Bear at his pom-pom wielding best thought they were going to do Dortmund, scoring six times across two legs against a defence that had a World Cup-winning centre-half from Germany, a Euros-winning full-back from Portugal, another full-back who won three French leagues with PSG and another centre-half who won two Serie A titles with Juventus.
Leipzig, semi-finalists in the Champions League two years ago, await in the first leg in Germany on Thursday. The Leipzig starting line-up that put out Atalanta in the quarter-final took almost £140m to assemble and you can make that almost £170m if you include the subs they used. By comparison, Rangers have been put together for washers.
Ibrox side find extra gear in Europe
The Germans are hot favourites, but Rangers surely couldn’t give a tuppeny damn about that. Underdog status has served them well against the last Bundesliga side they weren’t supposed to beat.
There’s also a good omen in the form of the latest prediction from German legend Lothar Matthaus. Having dismissed Rangers’ prospects ahead of the Dortmund game and then decrying them as a “third-rate team” in the aftermath, the great man has gone again, confidently forecasting that Leipzig will win this. Nice one, Lothar.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst doesn’t strike you as an old school manager who’s likely to stick stuff up on a wall to motivate his players, but there’s still a place for this kind of thing. The words ‘third-rate’ should be plastered all over the place at their team hotel. It could serve as meat and drink to these Rangers players as they seek to overcome the odds again.
In recent weeks, they’ve found an extra gear in European and domestic competition. The extra-time win against Braga took character. To follow it up a few days later with another extra-time victory against Celtic was hugely impressive, in a physical and mental sense.
Level at 1-1 but with a man sent-off, the second half at Fir Park on Saturday could have been nervy for them, but they swatted Motherwell aside in another convincing performance.
Thursday is going to be a different ball game, almost a different sport. The way their injury woes are going it’s as if Rangers are being used as some kind of laboratory experiment by the footballing gods. How much punishment can they take before they break?
Who leads the depleted Rangers attack?
Alfredo Morelos, who has scored in five European games this season, is out. Kemar Roofe, his deputy, is also out. Aaron Ramsey, who was signed on loan for the biggest games, will play no part.
Ramsey’s sum contribution in this European run has been four minutes against Dortmund and 80 against Braga. You could say Rangers brought the Ramsey thing on themselves by recruiting a star with a terrible injury profile, but they’ve been unlucky.
To lose your main striker at the most critical time in the season is tough. To lose both of your strikers and a player brought in as a game-changer all at the same juncture is seriously unfortunate.
They’re now looking around for the right man to play through the middle. Fashion Sakala’s direct running turned the game at the weekend, but he’s raw and Motherwell are to Leipzig what a moped is to a Harley Davidson Cosmic Starship.
Van Brockhorst has his back four and the two ahead, Ryan Jack and John Lundstram, written in stone. What does he do from there?
Ryan Kent, Joe Aribo and Scott Arfield played behind Morelos in the seminal game of Rangers’ European season, the 4-2 away at Dortmund. Kent’s finishing has been really substandard and needs to improve and fast, but he’s a shoo-in. Aribo has had a strong season and Arfield at his best is a wonderfully influential player.
Sakala to lead the line? Why not? His pace and energy might cause problems. If he has a naivete about him he also has a fearlessness. He can’t lack confidence right now.
Van Bronckhorst is missing key men – Morelos most of all – but he must be must be energised by all of this, even if he’s a rival to Steve Clarke in the world stoicism championships. Better to face a selection conundrum than to be out long ago and have no selection to make. Everybody at the club must be electrified by this run.
Nobody imagined that this day would come for them, not after their Champions League exit, not after their early defeats in the Europa League, not after the draw pitched them against Borussia Dortmund. They’ve climbed a few mountains but it always gets tougher the closer you get to the summit.
They can see it, but can they reach it? These are heady European days for Rangers, but to turn a good story into a great and historic one they need to come back from Leipzig with hope. How Ibrox will rock if they do.
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