The Last Sixteen Old Routine: Rangers v Slavia Prague

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When Rangers drew Villarreal in the last 16 of the 2005-06 Champions League I was gutted. And not just because the poor woman at my work who had access to the internet and was doing her fitba-addled colleagues a favour in those pre-iPhone days, kept running between our office and her PC, shout-whispering, “It’s someone with a V! It might be Liverpool? Does that sound right? No – wait… I think it’s PSV... no – they’re not Spanish… are Juventus Spanish?”

The first time we’d qualified from a UEFA group stage, after what felt like a lifetime trying, and I had one simple rubric for my preferred opposition: Make the opponent as big and glamorous as possible so even if we were eliminated we could at least enjoy the ride.

Problem was I’ve always been obsessed with European club finals. You had to have played in one to really catch my admiration. For me, contesting a continental showpiece conferred the extra glint required for any club to be truly box office.

Villarreal have still never appeared in any such final. All I could see the day of that 2005-06 Champions League Last 16 draw was Liverpool, Juventus and Real Madrid flying over the horizon, maybe never to be met again.

Of course, I went to both legs. And it’s quite simply one of the greatest football experiences of my life. What a team that Villarreal were – artists like Forlan, Riquelme, Senna and Tacchinardi – and that dayglow yellow kit, standing out against the muck and drizzle of a gorgeously intense Ibrox night under the lights, I suddenly realised had become, to the 21st century Liga fan, as distinctively glamorous as the all-white of Real Madrid, the all-red of Bayern or those Notts County stripes from Turin.

We went toe-to-toe with the Yellow Submarine in an absolute barnstormer of a tie – 2-2 at Ibrox and 1-1 at El Madrigal. We came back at them in Glasgow - they came back at us in the middle of the orange groves and tile factories way, way out of Valencia. We were a Kris Boyd sitter away from the quarter-finals of Europe’s premier club competition.

It was gutting but it was thrilling and that night, swapping badges with home fans and evading baton charges by the Guardia Civil, I realised that by a certain stage in Europe it isn’t necessarily about who you’re playing. A later round of the competition provides enough heightened reality in itself. The Last 16 of the Champions League was all the glamour I ever needed.

Werder Bremen, two seasons later, in the same stage of the UEFA Cup, were a dream opponent for me at any time. I love me a legendary Bundesliga club anyway and the 1992 European Cup-Winners’ Cup champions would be a prestigious tick off my sad little list even in a pre-season friendly. But, in Europe’s secondary tournament, back then, it was the next round, the quarters, which had the glamour inbuilt.

Nevertheless, it was after the first leg at Ibrox, with Werder keeper Tim Wiese throwing Daniel Cousin shots into his net or onto Steven Davis’s feet, that I knew a European final was on. Next day, same office, I told my boss I’d need holidays on May 14th and 15th 2008.

The magic we started feeling that night was the magic that had Allan McGregor pulling off the wonder save of wonder saves from Naldo, amid the Teutonic onslaught of (Brazilian-tinted) Teutonic onslaughts, in the second leg. It was the magic of our club palpably topping up its own historic glamour quota – it was the unmistakable fragrance of a Rangers run to a European club final.

So what to make of Slavia at home. What to think of another lovely, famous European name and kit without a modern European final to its credit. What to expect of a last 16 tie when Allan McGregor has already made his wonder save in the away leg and Steve Davis is ready for a spillage from another shaky keeper (liable home and away v OGC Nice in the group stage) in the home leg.

Well, times have changed since those European runs of the noughties. For a start, we were reigning Scottish champions when we met Villarreal but en route to losing our domestic crown, which would remain elsewhere until the season after Werder came calling. This time we’ve taken that crown back in the first week of March, while we’re still in Europe.

Okay, there’s maybe a few other wee changes we’ve been through in the interim. Most of which render Steven Gerrard’s Rangers reaching even the group stage of “Europe’s secondary competition” a comparable achievement with anything Big Eck or Sir Walter managed on the continent. But right now we’re not worried the league will be a distraction – we’re concerned that winning it so early, after wanting it so badly for so long, will blunt our competitive edge.

For me, tonight’s second leg could easily be another Bremen 2007-08. Or with the 1-1 draw in the away leg, it could just as likely be Villarreal 2005-06 as it doesn’t take much imagination to see Slavia scoring twice at Ibrox just as Benfica, Standard Liege and Antwerp have managed this season – just as Slavia did the last time they were in Britain, at Leicester, last round.

According to their dressing room celebrations after our last home game, our players could feel a change in the air in terms of the Premiership title. We now reek of, aherm, Chanel No55 but I can’t yet catch a whiff of a European final.

However, if we win tonight, sans suspensions and injuries, it’ll be as overpowering as any walk through the House of Fraser perfume counters at Christmas.

Our manager and our assistant manager have both scored in winning European finals. Our club has played in four. Our goalkeeper once helped us towards one – our midfield veteran played in it. In this competition we breathe competitive edge.

Slavia have never been to a modern European final. We must make the mere aroma of the quarters so heady it knocks them out before they can get there. And then we’ll take Roma…

…or Milan, or Man U, or Spurs… and all arguments about “glamour” will be moot, just as the arguments about this being a successful European season for Rangers ended when we won our group back in December.

Sod the suspensions and injuries – just get us into the quarters, Teds and make us go further three years on the bounce. We just want the sweet smell of success to get up a few more nostrils before this intoxicating season’s done.

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