Rangers meet Slavia Prague for the second leg of the last 16 of the Europa League tomorrow, but here’s why the away goal advantage must not be relied on…
You’ve probably seen the excuse carted around a fair bit. Rangers won the league at a canter because, obviously, Celtic struggled without their supporters filling the stands every other week. Only Celtic, mind you, and perhaps Liverpool if you’re that way inclined. No other club found football more difficult during the lockdown than these two perennially bad losers, wouldn’t you know?
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Ignoring how ridiculous that is, but only for a moment, it stands as a reminder that there will always be those who seek to negate our achievements – numptys, if you will. They don’t have to be Hoops fans either, they can be, for example, from a political party, one that may even be in government. No need to name any hypothetical names that may or may not be related to fish, needless to say.
In any case, Rangers success this season doesn’t stand alone. We talked a good long while ago about Slavia Prague, a few weeks before our 1-1 first leg encounter with them, in the last 16 of the Europa League. At that time both they and the Gers were unbeaten domestically and riding untouchably high at the top of their respective tables. And, well, not much has changed.
Slavia remain 14 points clear of rivals Sparta Prague with 19 wins and 4 draws out of 23 games. Similar, as we said, to the light blues, they don’t tend to concede a lot of goals only letting 15 go past them this season while firing in a whopping 66 in return. That’s pretty close to an average of three goals scored per game, which shows a dominance that is far from fluke.
Now, of course, Rangers sit with the advantage ahead of the return leg, albeit slim. One away goal is still something, but it stands to reason that if the Gers are good enough to play at this level so are the Czechs. 1-1 shows a pretty even contest to my eye and Steven Gerrard would do well to caution his side that relying on that away goal advantage isn’t going to fly.
Make no mistake, the light blues need to go out all guns blazing for the win tomorrow. Playing the safe game isn’t our style and it isn’t our strength – the real reason we barely concede goals these days is because we’re always on the front foot, always pressing, always dominating, making the opponent sit back so we don’t have to. Aye, true, Allan McGregor being a goalkeeping legend helps too, but the system in many ways makes his job pretty straightforward.
The good thing is though, Gerrard largely agrees that there’s no room for complacency here, as is evident by his pre-match press conference, as quoted by Sky Sports;
"“We are a team that are here because we deserve to be here, we are a good team and have got international players ourselves.If we find our level and our best, we believe it could be enough. We have watched the Leicester game, it was a fantastic result for them to go to Leicester and get a result.With the form they are in and the manager they have got, that is a big achievement, but this is a different game and Ibrox is different. We want to give this game everything we have got.This game is right up there at the top with the most important games that we have faced and played in.The opportunity to achieve the last eight, from where the club was when I came in, is a chance to achieve something that is monumental.”"
I saw many punching the air when we drew Slavia in the last 16, but this is not a push-over side by any means and tomorrow’s match will unquestionably be our toughest this season – perhaps even the best team we’ve faced in years, regardless of how many fans clog into that carbuncle of a library they call Celtic Park.
I’ve said from the beginning, Rangers aren’t the favourites here. I’m not letting us off the hook, or making early excuses. We’ve shown we’re good enough to get past them and I firmly believe we will, but that’s not the same as being the favourites. This year I wouldn’t call any side favourites against us, but it’s all about our mentality on the night, our drive to win and desire. If the lads turn up then I’m confident we’ll make this already historic year even moreso by seeing the last 8 of the competition.
This time, Slavia come to Ibrox. It’s not filled to the bursting with Bears roaring in tune, and that definitely does make it seem less threatening, but the Gers have shown they are good enough to win regardless of these details. That’s the difference between us and them and don’t let any fishy first ministers tell you otherwise.