COMPARING Rangers’ European campaign of 2022 to the Manchester run in 2008 throws up a distinguishable difference.

Walter Smith’s side deserved their shot at glory against Zenit St Petersburg but earned their passage through gritty, fortune-filled defensive showings. A style that came so close to immortality was eventually exposed by Andrey Arshavin and co as the Russian side proved a step too far.

Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s navigation to the final four this year has featured little resemblance to the ties Smith won against Panathinaikos, Werder Bremen, Sporting Lisbon and Fiorentina. The Dutchman’s team had scored 13 goals over three ties to set up a meeting with RB Leipzig, dominating against Borussia Dortmund, Red Star and Braga along the way. James Tavernier was the tournament’s top scorer, Ryan Kent a standout attacker. While it would be disingenuous to suggest the crop of 2008 didn’t reach the final on merit, this year’s squad played like a semi-final side to reach that stage.

Yesterday’s 1-0 defeat in Leipzig was different, far more reflective of Smith’s defensive cohesion and more recently, Steven Gerrard’s compactness. Given Domenico Tedesco’s side play a more controlled, possession-focused style of football in comparison to Marco Rose’s Dortmund, van Bronckhorst favoured containment over chaos, unlike his previous trip to Germany.

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From the first seconds, it became clear that Rangers’ game plan was focused on limitation. They moved with the ball, shuttled to close down spaces and continually made good decisions in defence. John Lundstram, Calvin Bassey and Connor Goldson were immense throughout; matching the hosts’ celebrated trio of Dani Olmo, Christopher Nkunku and Dominik Szoboszlai and ensuring Allan McGregor was relatively untroubled.

Tedesco’s side were prepared to face a battle for space. They may have created few clear openings, but the tempo of their passing and speed of movement made the threat of breakthrough constant. Regular forward runs from midfield sought to exploit space, any transitional moment spelt immediate danger and scripted combinations bypassed challenges at will. In response, van Bronckhorst’s side ran and ran, to limit all the space they could.

At the break, the visitors moved from a 5-3-2 to a 5-4-1, not dissimilar to the tactical switch witnessed against Motherwell last Saturday. Before the interval, the lack of an outball with Ryan Kent and Scott Wright spearheading the attack meant no relief from Red Bull pressure. Alongside no attacking moments, the effort required to stagnate Leipzig was visibly energy-sapping; van Bronckhorst moved to solve both issues at the interval.

“I think in the first half we defended well, but weren’t very comfortable on the ball,” he said.

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“In the second half, we changed our set up so we didn’t have to run a lot, especially our midfield players. On the ball, we played with more confidence and created some dangerous moments.”

Moving Joe Aribo into a false No.9 position offered an avenue through pressure and Rangers enjoyed their best spell with the Nigerian central. While playing an extra man in midfield decreased the distances individuals were required to cover. 

After Nkunku missed an open goal, fate appeared to be beckoning the visitors to a clean sheet. Angelino’s volley should’ve perhaps been overruled by VAR, but the quality of his effort was unquestionable.

To concede a goal so late after defending with such resolve provoked a natural deflation. The reality is many would’ve taken this result pre-match, and even the more optimistic supporter may have been persuaded having witnessed the German’s quality up close. The plan in Saxony was to limit and contain, as Ryan Jack told the media post-match. Next Thursday at Ibrox, van Bronckhorst’s intentions will of course be more positive.

Nonetheless, his team travel home with a result that gives Ibrox permission to brim with expectancy on Thursday. Based on recent evidence, supporters will believe and judging by the quiet confidence exuded by van Bronckhorst in his post-match press conference, that sentiment extends to the dressing room.

With the away tie over and the tie alive, Rangers' Seville dream lives on. If this European adventure continues into May, the principles championed by Smith’s 2008 side will have played a prominent part in the story.