Giovanni Van Bronckhorst now has a major problem. Rangers’ return to the top table saw them embarrassed by an Ajax team still meant to be gelling. The visitors were denied the measliest titbit.
As in 1996, Rangers conceded four times against Ajax. Like then, there was the consolation of a goal to savour before even that crumb of comfort was snatched from them.
Borna Barisic’s stunning right-footed shot into the top corner was chopped off after a lengthy VAR check. Rangers were already trailing 3-0 after conceding three goals in the opening 33 minutes. Another one followed the Barisic disappointment. Steven Bergwijn slotted into the empty net after latching onto substitute Ryan Jack’s short backpass and rounding Jon McLaughlin.
It made it successive 4-0 defeats after Saturday’s loss to Celtic. The last time the Ibrox side conceded four in successive matches was in 1982 when they lost 4-0 to Aberdeen in the last league of the season and 4-1 - after extra time - in the Scottish Cup final against the same opponents seven days later.
Rangers are currently reeling from port to port like drunken sailors. The next stop is in fact Aberdeen before Napoli are the visitors to Ibrox for Champions League matchday two.
Matchday one will have to be written off as a dry run. Months after coming so close to lifting the Europa League, Rangers looked like they were at the wrong party. This was the worst kind of imposter syndrome because it was true. There seemed little doubt they don’t belong in such company.
It was as if Rangers had turned up the banquet and started eating with the wrong knife and fork. They had forgotten the etiquette after a dozen years’ exile. Outclassed and outfought, it was a miserable return to the Netherlands only a fortnight after one of their greatest recent nights against PSV Eindhoven. PSV were good but Ajax are at another level. How Rangers must regret the decision not to invest after securing their Champions League return. They had plenty of time to do so.
Rangers’ fans misgivings about the relative lack of transfer window activity, given every reason to form during the defeat by Celtic on Saturday, were completely borne out by this drubbing in Amsterdam.
If this was Rangers’ response to being urged to make up for Parkhead, there must be serious doubts about their capabilities. Equally, there must be questions asked about the man issuing the challenge if this is all that they could muster.
Van Bronckhorst had demanded that a different Rangers turn up but there was a crushingly familiar feel about both the line-up and the nature of the quick-fire first half collapse. It was a re-run of Parkhead in February. It was a re-run of Parkhead on Saturday.
Rangers have had their struggles in recent years. This was meant to represent another step in the recovery. Indeed, some suggested a first Champions League group game for 12 years was the last checkpoint. If so, they looked pitifully under-qualified and under-resourced.
Rangers fans will argue that their side should not be conceding three first-half goals anywhere. Not in Amsterdam and certainly not in the east end of Glasgow. And absolutely not in back-to-back matches.
If there’s any comfort to be had it’s that this is clearly another special Ajax team in the process of being built under Alfred Schreuder, who only took charge this summer. They were more than equipped to prey on Rangers’ weaknesses, particularly in defence and principally at corners. It took Ajax only ten minutes to demonstrate this. The unmarked Jurrien Timber headed over at the front post from Dusan Tadic’s cross.
Seven minutes later, Ajax were ahead. Rangers had again refused to heed the warning. Mexican midfielder Edson Alvarez had the easiest task of powering a header past McLaughlin after James Tavernier and Connor Goldson were caught under a corner. It was not only at set pieces where Rangers were floundering. They couldn’t cope with right back Devyne Rensch’s movement and McLaughlin prevented Rangers going further behind with a save at his near post.
One of the main pre-match talking points involved the issue of goalkeeper. Van Bronckhorst hinted he would retain faith in McLaughlin and so it proved. The interest in this detail evaporated after it became clear that it wouldn't have mattered whether McLaughlin, Allan McGregor or the late, great Andy Goram was standing between the sticks.
Ajax chose not to pepper McLaughlin’s goal with shots immediately. Indeed, he dealt with some passbacks competently and probably felt he had played his way into the match following the trauma of Saturday. Then the roof caved in.
McLaughlin, having seen Alvarez' unstoppable header flash by him, was left helpless when James Sands deflected a Steven Berghuis shot into the net. Tavernier was then too easily brushed aside by the game’s star performer Mohammed Kudus. The striker produced an unstoppable finish from wide on the left that pinged into the net off the far post. Rangers were now firmly in damage limitation territory. The ineffectual Scott Wright, Malik Tillman and injured Tavernier were replaced by Rabbi Matondo, Ryan Jack and Leon King at half-time.
Wright had been the only change to the team that had imploded at the weekend. The switch hadn’t eased the apprehension of Rangers fans concerned by frailties that were so brutally exposed at Celtic Park.
A performance where he struggled to even control the ball sadly justified the fears about Wright.
Tillman, a supposedly superior player brought in by Rangers to handle nights like these, struggled to impose himself apart from one promising run in the first half.
Main goal threat Antonio Colak lasted 90 minutes and managed the same number of touches in the opposition box as Alfredo Morelos, who sat on the bench throughout. Rangers’ problems are escalating.