Steven Gerrard's prediction comes true as Rangers face tricky Europa League test against Royal Antwerp
On the face of it, the pairing with a Royal Antwerp side then languishing in seventh place in Belgium’s top flight looked just about as propitious as the Ibrox club could have hoped for.
But Gerrard quickly insisted Antwerp were underachieving and confidently predicted they would be much higher up their domestic league table by the time the Europa League knockout tie came around in February.
The Rangers manager’s words have proved prescient. Revitalised under the leadership of Belgian football icon Franky Vercauteren, Antwerp have climbed to second place with a run of seven wins from their last nine league games.
They remain well off the pace in a title race which reigning champions Bruges, currently 14 points clear, have turned into a procession.
But Antwerp have gathered momentum and confidence since Vercauteren replaced Ivan Leko as head coach at the turn of the year.
One of Belgium’s greatest ever players, helping them to finish fourth at the 1986 World Cup Finals, Vercauteren scored two of his nine goals for his country against Scotland - in a 1-1 draw at Hampden in 1983 and then in a 4-1 win in Brussels four years later.
Now 64, the former Ballon d’Or nominee has enjoyed a much-travelled coaching career which has included title-winning stints in his homeland with both Anderlecht, the club where he made his name as a player, and Genk.
Vercauteren is regarded as a highly pragmatic coach in Belgium, prioritising defensive solidity in his teams which have often attracted criticism from media and pundits for not being easy on the eye.
Rangers can anticipate a robust challenge at the Bosuil Stadium on Thursday night in the first leg of an intriguing tie as Antwerp bid to extend what has been their most successful European campaign since they reached the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1993, losing 3-1 to Parma at Wembley.
They qualified for the Europa League this season on the back of their Belgian Cup triumph last season, their first major honour for 28 years.
The lowest ranked team in their group, they exceeded expectations with a second-placed finish just one point behind Tottenham Hotspur. A 1-0 home win over Jose Mourinho’s side helped them qualify for the last 32 ahead of Austrian outfit LASK and Bulgarian champions Ludogorets Razgrad.
Antwerp’s most influential player is Israeli international Lior Refaelov, a stylish attacking midfielder who scored 13 goals in 33 games last season and was named Player of the Year in Belgium.
The 34-year-old has continued that fine form in the current campaign. He is Antwerp’s top scorer with 10 goals so far, including three in the Europa League.
An attacking threat is also posed by Didier Lamkel Ze, the Cameroon striker who caused a stir when he turned up at the Antwerp training ground in December wearing an Anderlecht strip as he agitated for a transfer. Lamkel Ze subsequently apologised and has been thriving in recent weeks under Vercauteren.
Rangers will get a useful form guide on Sunday when Antwerp play Standard Liege, the side Gerrard’s men beat home and away in the group stage.
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