Seven points is all Rangers need to clinch their first Scottish Premiership title in a decade. Of course, it has been in the bag for the Ibrox outfit for some time such is the lead they have enjoyed over rivals Celtic for months, but the sight of the trophy in Steven Gerrard’s hands will be symbolic of how far he has taken the club.
The league title is undoubtedly the thing Rangers fans have craved the most ever since their club suffered a financial meltdown. Rangers spent four years in the Scottish lower leagues, before returning to the Premiership, as they counted the cost of the mismanagement and recklessness that took the institution to the brink of extinction.
However, now that Rangers are within just three results of achieving their ultimate objective there might be a greater symbol of their progress within reach. A run into the latter stages of this season’s Europa League would outweigh what the Ibrox club are about to clinch domestically.
Gerrard’s record in Europe as Rangers manager to date is remarkable. Indeed, the Govan side have lost just five of the 42 continental matches they have played with the former Liverpool midfielder at the helm, winning 23 and drawing 14. Rangers are unbeaten in this season’s Europa League, winning five of the seven games they have played. Their two draws came against Benfica.
While Rangers have dominated the Scottish Premiership title race this season, an accomplishment that has led Celtic to a search for a new manager, it’s in Europe where they have looked strongest given the standard of the competition. Gerrard has made the Ibrox club tough to beat in a way they haven’t been since the days of Walter Smith, when Rangers made a run to the final of the 2008 UEFA Cup.
Round-by-round, the challenge will get increasingly difficult for Rangers but they have already proven themselves against some high calibre opposition. Were it not for two late equalisers, Gerrard’s team would have beaten Benfica home and away in the group stage. Last season also saw Rangers claim wins over Feyenoord and Porto.
The nature of Scottish football and the disparity between Glasgow’s big two clubs and the rest means there’s only so much Gerrard can do domestically to highlight his ability as a manager. In Europe, however, the 40-year-old can be properly measured and so far the yardstick says Gerrard is one of Britain’s best young coaches, the gamble has paid off for both parties.
At Liverpool, Gerrard failed to get his hands on a league title and so the importance of winning the Scottish Premiership for Rangers won’t be lost on the former midfielder. Rangers’ title triumph, when it comes, will be a reward for the remarkable consistency they have shown throughout the season, with the Ibrox men still to lose in the league. They could finish the campaign as Invincibles.
But if Gerrard has managerial ambitions beyond Scottish football it’s Rangers’ form in Europe that will help him get to where he wants to be. Not since Rangers lost to Zenit St Petersburg in the UEFA Cup final 13 years ago has a Scottish club made it past the last 16 stage of a continental competition. Gerrard’s team stand a good chance of changing this.
Rangers still have some work to do to secure their passage from the round of 32, but last week’s 4-3 away win over Royal Antwerp has put them in a strong position to clinch the tie on aggregate. That Rangers have improved in Europe season-on-season under Gerrard suggests they should be aiming to at least make the quarter finals. If they can do that, title glory might not be the most significant thing to happen at Ibrox this season.