Rather bizarrely for a Slovenian team with an average home attendance of just 3,500 fans, Maribor are well-known in Scottish football circles. First, they thumped Hibernian in Europa League qualification back in 2010. The following year, they dumped Rangers out of the same competition before eliminating Celtic from Champions League qualification in 2014. And so there was a collective groan around Ibrox when Rangers were paired with Scottish football’s perennial team.
And yet last week’s first leg victory over Maribor served as an encouraging gauge of Rangers’ improvement under Steven Gerrard. The Govan side faced a sink or swim moment early on in the career of their new manager, with an even first half hinting at a potential European exit. Ultimately, though, goals from Alfredo Morelos, James Tavernier and Lassana Coulibaly secured a 3-1 win.
Now, having been locked out of continental competition for the past seven years, Rangers are just three games away from the group stage of the Europa League. Making the competition proper would be above and beyond all that was expected of Gerrard at this stage and could further fast-track the development of the Ibrox side under the former England and Liverpool captain.
From both a sporting and financial perspective, qualifying for the Europa League would be a big deal for Rangers. In fact, it would be just as big an achievement as making the final of the UEFA Cup all the way back in 2008. Obviously the history books will chart the run of Walter Smith’s side 10 years as the greater success, but in the context of circumstance, Gerrard’s team stands on the brink of a similar triumph.
Consider that Smith’s side won the Scottish Premier League title the year they made the UEFA Cup final, also qualifying for the Champions League in three of the previous five seasons. Rangers, at that time, had pedigree. They were an established European outfit, even making the last 16 of the Champions League in 2005/06.
Contrast this to the team Gerrard took over this summer. Far from being title challengers, as Smith’s side were, Rangers didn’t even finish second in the Scottish Premiership last season, crashing out the Europa League in the first qualifying round to part time opposition from Luxembourg. They have had eight different managers in the past four years.
Gerrard and director of football Mark Allen have since led a complete overhaul of the squad, with Rangers seemingly spending their money much better this summer than they did last summer, when they splurged the best part of £10 million on several players of questionable quality. But Europa League qualification should have come too early for a squad still integrating no fewer than 11 new signings.
Of course, there is still plenty work to be done before Rangers can pull up a seat at the Europa League table. There remains a second leg against Maribor to negotiate. Beyond that, the Ibrox side would face one of either FC Ufa of Russia or Progres Niederkorn, the Luxembourg team that knocked them out last season. The latter would provide quite the symbolic test for Gerrard, but both potential draws are favourable.
All this comes just as Celtic stagger through Champions League qualification.
Given their first leg result against AEK Athens, it’s entirely possible that Brendan Rodgers’ side could drop down to the same continental level as Rangers this season. Considering the importance that is placed on European competition in Scotland, with only the champions handed a shot at the Champions League, this could be a watershed moment.
The early days of Pedro Caixinha’s tenure provided an indication of what was to follow, with the Portuguese coach crashing out of Scottish football just a few months into the 2017/18 season. It was clear from the start that he wouldn’t cut it at Rangers. By the same token, Gerrard’s early days have been altogether more positive. He looks the part. He has signed well. He is a man manager. He can affect a game from the touchline. He wears a club tie well. Qualifying for the Europa League group stage would be a manifestation of all this and more.