Only three months after the giddiest of climbs in cross-border competition that claimed them a first European final in 14 years with the Europa League decider agonisingly lost on penalties in Seville to Eintracht Frankfurt, Giovanni van Bronckhorst men dug in their clamping irons at the Philips Stadion to plant a flag in the Champions League group stages for the first time since the 2010/11 campaign courtesy of a 1-0 defeat of home team PSV that secured them a 3-2 aggregate triumph in the play-off decider.
Van Bronckhorst is proving himself to be a man for whom Everest-style challengers on the continent in his Ibrox role appear to hold no fears. A huge evening for him, he made huge calls pre-match – with the dropping of Alfredo Morelos – in team selection and even in game, and came out not smiling, but beaming and bouncing around as he celebrated on the full-time whistle.
Deceptively durable, his team on these occasions is in his image. For their against-the-odds success in his homeland was one of fortitude over finesse, of showing the biggest, beating heart when it could have been so easy to become resigned to facing up to a hard-luck story.
Rudd van Nistelrooy's men out-played their visitors for spells. They out-chanced them, with a combination of stoicism from goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin and some sorry attempts from the home players allowing Rangers’ goal to remain intact. The pivotal moment, the goal that took the tie on the hour mark, was a case of PSV proving lax in their own box … and Malik Tillman showing the conviction that could not be matched by those in home colours. Mistakes only matter if they are capitalised on and the calamitous heavy touch that Andre Ramalho took in receiving the ball from keeper Walter Benitez had the US international at his heels like a terrier. Alive to opportunity, he then had the composure to square to an unmarked Antonio Colak that allowed the striker to stroke the ball into an unguarded net.
Rangers, who almost took the lead early in the second period with Tom Lawrence curling on to the underside of the bar, then showed all their European experience to keep a disorientated PSV at arm’s length. Two openings that they squandered in the minutes before the interval – Luuk de John shooting straight at McLaughlin and then Cody Gakpo lofting over with the goal gaping – came back to haunt them. But it was all about their visitors staying power that ultimately had them spooked.
Rangers believe in their ability to find a way; and they have consistently delivered on that in Europe in the past 11 months in two-legged ties. Only one win in 11 European games outside of Scotland, when they needed a second success, they were able to pull it out to ensure that their journey post-liquidation in 2012 is complete.
Moreover, Van Bronckhorst has required to revamp the team that weren’t able to overcome Eintracht Frankfurt in Seville in May. And, that has not been smooth. But in Eindhoven, it was his new players that mAde the difference. Colak’s finish might have been simple, but his desire to run himself into the ground for his team demands attitude that the Ibrox manager has questioned with the left-at-home Morelos. Likewise, McLaughlin, Tillman and Lawrence aren’t veterans for the Europa League run but next phase players.
It’s official: Champions League players now, which will sound heavenly to all those of a Rangers disposition.