Rangers vs. RB Leipzig: Europa League final spot clinched as game of a generation puts Scottish football back in the big time

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James Tavernier Rangers

IBROX STADIUM, GLASGOW — Rangers’ phenomenal rise from the ashes reached new heights with a sensational Europa League semi-final victory over RB Leipzig, as Scottish football put itself back on the map. 

On a night that will never be forgotten — the kind of mythical game every football fan dreams of — the Rangers faithful did as much as the players to cultivate a 3-1 victory, overturning the 0-1 first-leg deficit. Ibrox was deafening. 

The howls of disgust for every passing move by Leipzig, the raucous applause for every corner, the torrents of abuse for several generations of the referee's family, the celebrations for yellow cards which would rival a last-minute winner at any Premier League arena… this all played into securing a spot in Seville. 

The emotion of the night was only furthered by the passing of Jimmy Bell, the much-loved Rangers kitman of 30 years, this week. The loss understandably changed the Rangers players' preparation for the game, manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst admitted, but from the off it was clear the hosts would be creating a magical evening in Bell's honour, rather than be overawed by the occasion. 

It would've been easy to wilt. After all, Leipzig are a superior team. Their campaign started in the Champions League group stage, going toe-to-toe with both Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain. Since Domenico Todesco arrived, only Bayern Munich have been better in Germany. Their quality is such that they have the luxury of casually bringing Dominik Szoboszlai off the bench.

Fortune favours the brave: Bassey the star in Van Bronckhorst masterplan

Leipzig began the better side on a technical level, as expected, but Rangers' full-blooded approach quickly swung the tie in their favour. Snapping into challenges and playing right on the edge throughout, Van Bronckhorst got his tempo spot on. He wasn't looking to pander to the opposition by camping out around the box, keeping it tight and hitting them late on. 

Van Bronckhorst wanted his men to smell blood from the outset, and they did. At times, the defensive line was worryingly high early on, with Yussuf Poulsen and reported Manchester United target Christopher Nkunku looking like they could find some joy. In addition, the passing was risky, and the 5-4-1 on paper became a more adventurous 3-4-3 in patches. 

In fact, those three centre-backs dropped to two when Calvin Bassey stepped upfield. He did so often, and to great effect. Given that license to impose himself on the game and dictate from deep, Bassey monstered Leipzig's technicians with an imperious display, confident in possession and aggressive when needed. He was part central midfielder and part left-back, epitomising the progression he's made with Rangers over the past two years. 

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The Nigeria international was Rangers' top performer, but a couple who were close behind combined for the first strike. Ryan Kent, menacing on the left flank, played a ball across the face of goal for James Tavenier — captain fantastic, and now the Europa League's top scorer this term, with seven goals from right-back. 

Glen Kamara was involved in the build-up to that opener, and got his own name on the scoresheet with a lovely left-footed finish, placing it in from the edge of the area six minutes later. The raw emotion around Ibrox — which also saw Kamara kiss his black armband in memory of Bell — was fuelling these players, who should've gone into the break even further ahead. 

For the first hour, Leipzig couldn't live with the reigning Scottish champions. Nkunku, who was predicted to use this two-legged affair to showcase his undoubted talent to potential suitors on these shores, was fairly anonymous. After a superb 31-goal campaign, the France international failed to make any meaningful impact when it mattered. 

And then, he did. First came a smart ball round the corner to set up a rare golden opportunity for the visitors. The 24-year-old forward followed that by taking matters into his own hands, with a superbly taken first-time volley from close range. In the blink of an eye, Leipzig were level on aggregate and with a chance to take a stranglehold. 

They didn't. With 10 minutes left to play, Kent yet again fashioned a chance down the left and played a lofted ball which Peter Gulacsi couldn't deal with. It fell to John Lundstram — a man who has been utterly superb for Rangers since signing last summer. He made no mistake, slotting home a goal for the ages, to send the 55-time kings of Scotland back into the European spotlight. 

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A new era: Rangers and Scottish football are back 

It's barely believable that Rangers will now take on Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League final, after their campaign began back in August with a narrow 1-0 playoff-round win over Alashkert of Armenia. Since then, they've encountered a whole host of injuries — including Joe Aribo going down halfway through tonight's victory — and have endured losing the manager who brought back the good times to Ibrox. 

Steven Gerrard made Rangers dream again, stopping Celtic's 10-in-a-row attempt in the Scottish Premiership with his superb unbeaten season in 2020/21. Following him seemed an impossible job, but Van Bronckhorst has coped admirably. 

And all this comes just a decade on from Rangers being on the brink of oblivion, with the Glaswegian giants' financial ruin seeing them plunged into the fourth tier of the pyramid. A dark time for Rangers — or, indeed, Celtic — also naturally means a dark time for Scottish football. A procession of a Premiership campaign interspersed with utter embarrassments in the Champions League was at risk of becoming a never-ending cycle. 

Now, Rangers will be confident of winning only the second European trophy in club history, and the first in half a century. Though their opposition in Seville later this month, Frankfurt, are on a huge high after eliminating tournament favourites Barcelona and West Ham, there is absolutely nothing to fear. Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund — far stronger Bundesliga sides — have both been tactically out-thought and physically out-worked by Rangers. 

Putting the Europa League in the trophy cabinet could also arguably represent Scotland's most impressive achievement on the continent, given the era Rangers are competing in. Of course, it ultimately lacks the prestige of Celtic's European Cup glory, powered exclusively by local talents, in 1966/67. But with the financial imbalance between the Premiership and the heavyweights of the 'big five' leagues, the conversation is there to be had. 

Until then, though, Rangers fans have a few more weeks riding this crest of a wave with their hopes and dreams. You see things on a night like this. You see grown men and women with smiles on their faces that they haven't had the like of in decades: the indescribable ecstasy, the innocence of youth. And you see the same people seemingly take years off their lifespan with the excruciating stress of every Nkunku or Poulsen half-chance. 

This was a once-in-a-lifetime atmosphere, for a once-in-a-lifetime game. Nobody in this famous old ground, which was shaking to its core from a half-hour before the first whistle to a half-hour after the last, will ever forget it. 

Raj Singh Mahil Photo

Raj Singh Mahil is UK Chief Editor at The Sporting News.