Not since 2008, when the Europa League was called the UEFA Cup, had a Scottish team reached the final of a European competition. Back then, Rangers defended with their backs to the wall to set up a meeting with Zenit St Petersburg in Manchester. This time, the Ibrox club adopted a very different approach to make it to Seville this week where they will face Eintracht Frankfurt.
Indeed, Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s team imposed their own game on opponents on their run to the final. They put six goals past Borussia Dortmund over two legs before scoring four times against Red Star Belgrade. Even when Rangers suffered first leg defeats to Braga and RB Leipzig, they responded with three goals at home.
And yet some will still argue that Rangers are out of their depth at this level of the continental game. They point out the perceived low standard of Scottish football and claim van Bronckhorst and his players are fortunate to be in this season’s Europa League final. The sport north of the border frequently finds itself a target.
But such criticisms come from a place of ignorance. Rangers are European finalists this season, but they haven’t even won the Scottish Premiership title. Instead, Celtic have demonstrated their quality under Ange Postecoglou, playing a brand of attractive, dynamic football that has inspired plenty at the club.
Celtic will take their place in the group stage of next season’s Champions League and Rangers can join them by winning the Europa League. Even below Scotland’s big two, Hearts are guaranteed to be in the group stage of the Europa Conference League next season and could still qualify for the Europa League.
Scotland has also provided a platform to a number of top-level players in recent times. Virgil van Dijk, for instance, grew into the player he is today at Celtic. Andy Robertson got his chance in the professional game at Dundee United. John McGinn came through St Mirren and Hibernian before moving to Aston Villa.
Odsonne Edouard, Moussa Dembele, Victor Wanyama, Kristoffer Ajer, Stuart Armstrong and others have all passed through Scotland on their way to the Premier League (or Ligue 1 in Dembele’s case). In an inflated transfer market, the country is one of the few remaining places where good value can be found.
Often derided as a two-team league, there is intrigue woven throughout the Scottish Premiership. The division boasts some of the fiercest rivalries in British football. Until recently, only a handful of points divided fourth place with 10th. It was possible to go from relegation candidates to European contenders with just one result.
While it’s certainly true Scottish football might not be as strong as it once was decades ago, the national team could qualify for back-to-back major tournaments after appearing at Euro 2020 – Scotland will qualify for the 2022 World Cup with wins over Ukraine and Wales next month. Steve Clarke has built a young team capable of holding their own against most opponents.
Rather than being a fluke, Rangers’ run to this season’s Europa League final has been the culmination of season-on-season progress. They qualified for the competition’s group stages in 2018/19 before making the round of 16 in 2019/20 and 2020/21. Rangers have been preparing for this run for a while.
As the poorer, often overlooked cousin of the Premier League machine south of the border, Scottish football might be an easy target, but it’s only fair that the country receives some respect when its teams are performing so well. Rangers don’t reflect all of the Scottish game, but that picture is a bright one too.