All credit to Nostradamus and his top-drawer prophecies, but as impressive as he was when predicting the Great Fire of London and the coming of the French Revolution, not even the big man could have foretold this gobsmacking Rangers story.
After the momentous events of Thursday at Ibrox, we are now deep in the realms of the sublimely surreal.
Having started their European campaign with one win from six games, Rangers are going to Seville for a Europa League final against the 11th best team in Germany – on current standings – having already eliminated the second and fifth best.
In the beginning, there were 32 teams in the group phase. Now, only two are left. Napoli, Lazio and Atalanta are gone. Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen and RB Leipzig are gone. Barcelona, Sevilla, Real Betis and Real Sociedad are gone. Lyon, Marseille and Monaco are gone. Porto are gone.
Three of the top seven clubs in Italy were eliminated, so were three of the top five in Germany, four of the top six in Spain, three of the top seven in France, and the top club in Portugal. As stellar as they all are, there’s no sign of them.
It’s just Rangers and Eintracht Frankfurt. The team that hasn’t won a European trophy in 50 years plays the team that hasn’t won one in 42 years. It’s all so refreshing and so utterly remarkable.
The bookmakers make the Germans the favorites. Given what Rangers have done to Dortmund – 24 points ahead of Eintracht in the Bundesliga – and Leipzig – 14 points ahead – where they’re coming from is anyone’s guess. We checked with 17 significant players in the odds-laying world and all 17 had Eintracht at the head of the market.
As excellent as Eintracht have been in the Europa League, Rangers, with their indomitable will, must be considered favorites in the real world. Let’s write that again for emphasis, because it’s such a striking thing to say.
Forget about the books and just study the football – Rangers must be considered favorites in the Europa League final. Nostradamus’ whiskers would have been twitching at the fantastic improbability of all of this.
In seeing off Leipzig, they once again showed astonishing levels of composure and heart in what was their 60th game of the season. They had no recognized striker fit enough to play and still scored twice in the opening half hour – and should have had a third – against a side with the second best defensive record in the Bundesliga.
They were going through that point. Then they were going to extra time when Christopher Nkunku scored midway through the second half. Then it looked as if they might be going out as they started to wobble under Leipzig pressure.
‘Every one of those players stepped up’
What happened next will be spoken about for as long as football is played at Ibrox. Locked together at 2-2 on aggregate with 10 minutes to go, there was the real prospect of another 120-minute night for Rangers – it would have been their third in 22 days as part of a run during which they have played nine times in little over a month.
Every Rangers fan on the planet would have been hypnotized by what was going on in front of them, every last one of them a tortuous amalgam of emotions, incapable of taking their eyes off the action while suffering through every second.
Incredibly, the picture changed again when John Lundstram scored to make it 3-1. You almost had to rub your eyes to make sure it had actually happened. Rangers had looked tired and increasingly vulnerable, but they found something extra, something that hit Leipzig square between their eyes and knocked them out.
Lundstram has become a towering presence in this team and his goal will only add another layer to his legend. The truth is, though, that on the biggest night at Ibrox in 50 years and in the biggest game of these Rangers’ players lives, they produced a performance of power and substance, a display of the ages. Every one of them stepped up.
For the fifth time in Europe this season, James Tavernier got Rangers’ opening goal. Leipzig would have known all about his freakish menace from full-back, but knowing what he can do is not the same as being able to stop him doing it.
Once it would have been heresy to compare any Rangers right-back to the great Sandy Jardine, but we’re inching into acceptable territory with Tavernier now. Just as Jardine scored the opening goal against Bayern Munich the last time Ibrox hosted a European semi-final, second leg, so did Tavernier half a century on.
What a force of nature he is. It was his seventh goal of the tournament – he’s the competition’s leading scorer – his 16th of the season and his 35th in his last 100 games.
‘Relentless Rangers show character again’
The notion that Leipzig would get spooked by the Ibrox noise seemed a touch fanciful in the preamble. It was easy to see how Rangers would get inspired by the commotion in their own stadium, but Leipzig cowed by it?
This is a team that has gone to pretty formidable places in Germany and beyond, a club full of respected players linked with moves to Manchester United and Barcelona, PSG and Juventus, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. Even if the fees reported are only half right, the numbers are outrageous.
And yet they are a side that has lost two German Cup finals (4-1 and 3-0) and one Champions League semi-final (3-0). They might have class, but they also have a glass jaw. We suspected that before and we know it to be true now.
When Glen Kamara coolly slotted Rangers’ second goal, the idea of Leipzig losing their nerve didn’t seem so outlandish. They should have been three down after half an hour, Joe Aribo missing his connection from three yards out. Leipzig’s body language told of a team that was shellshocked, like a fighter shipping blows in clusters and not knowing what to do next.
This was Rangers doing what they did in Germany – controlled fury, harrying their opponents at every turn – but there was an added flourish in attack. Every time they moved forward, they looked dangerous.
You watched them playing like this and scratched your head at the memory of them dropping so many points domestically. Giovanni van Bronckhorst sat in the stand at Hampden watching the players he was about to inherit concede three goals in 38 minutes against Hibernian in the League Cup semi-final in November. Now look where he is.
In what has been an emotional week in a profoundly sad season off the field – the death of their much-loved kitman Jimmy Bell following on from the loss of one of their greatest managers, Walter Smith, in October – Rangers people might find comfort in the belief that they had help from on high in the closing minutes.
Something propelled them forward, that’s for sure. When they can’t have had much left in their legs – the crowd, the celestial, who knows – picked them up and drove them on. They were relentless. They’ve shown this side of their character so many times of late.
The biggest game of their season, and their century, is less than two weeks away. Football has a spectacular capacity to upset a narrative, so we say this with all due respect to the footballing Gods and their infinite powers to ruin a great story, but there’s a hint of the unstoppable about Rangers now.