And thus, it has come to that. Nine weeks on from the raucous celebrations in Eindhoven and the wonderful excitement of the next day’s Champions League draw, Rangers have one more chance to shake off continental ignominy.
All hope and expectation has been dashed, revealing the stark reality of trying to compete with last season’s runners-up Liverpool, an Ajax side that reached the last 16 and, in Napoli, a team that can go on and claim it big. bright pot themselves in this term.
After five defeats, Rangers host Ajax on Tuesday, knowing that defeat would leave its mark on this competition as they are the team with the worst group stage performance in history.
Dinamo Zagreb – in 2011-12 – lost six games and finished with a goal difference of -19. Rangers have conceded 18 more than they have scored.
Malik Tillman’s eyes widened as the gravity of the situation became apparent after a cautious 3-0 defeat against Napoli.
“Everyone will be motivated to win in the end,” said the Ajax striker. “For us it is huge and a great challenge. We will try to win.”
Defiant words, no doubt, but matching that kind of talk with action has been proven in Europe beyond Rangers this season.
Liverpool have done it twice for them. Naples too. No shame in that, given the difference in resources. Ajax are more elegantly upholstered, but the manner in which Rangers capitulated in their Dutch opener was fatal.
Even a 4-0 overturn next week would not be enough for Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side to grab third place in the section. To tread on the Europa League’s most forgiving ground after the new year, they need to score five without reply.
“Harmful, excessive and too step?”
Van Bronckhorst called for a show of character in Naples. For his players to drown out any fear and embrace playing in the fiery surroundings of the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium.
And they did. But after his rapier hosts were pierced twice in the opening 16 minutes with two goals from Giovanni Simeone’s ruthless simplicity. Leo Ostigarden’s late header was also easy to concede.
“It was a tough watch,” said BBC Scotland pundit and former Rangers striker Neil McCann. “It allowed Napoli to let their engine down and get closer to Rangers. It could have been a lot worse because Napoli are a top team.”
McCann’s former teammate Steven Thompson echoed those sentiments on Sportsound, calling the campaign “too much of a step” for this group of players.
“I think a Champions League has had the opposite effect on a club that it should have,” he said.
“It’s been a sobering campaign. Van Bronckhorst will be desperate to finish it. He’ll get more criticism tonight and it’s been damaging for him, and for the club.”
Shafts of light that can be found amidst the darkness
However, the trip to Napoli was not as uneventful as many Rangers fans who traveled despite not being allowed inside the stadium thought.
Rangers have leaked five, six and – at the beginning of the month Liverpool – seven goals in Europe. A follower quietly said that eight was not discussed this time.
While Napoli’s early brace heightened those concerns, Rangers did not fall.
Granted, their hospitable hosts were relieved, but there was diligence, determination and even a little ambition on the part of the visitors. Indeed, how Alfredo Morelos failed to convert Ridvan Yilmaz’s tempting cross remains a mystery.
It means Rangers go into Saturday’s key Scottish Premiership meeting with Aberdeen slightly weaker than they would otherwise be.
Four points behind Celtic and in the midst of a dismal home display, they need a performance as much as a result to restore their supporters’ faith in their increasingly attacking manager.
Thompson said the weekend win “buys Van Bronckhorst time.” Another three days later would buy Rangers some continental consolation at the end of a disappointing week.