How far this season will the Rangers’ record-breaking European run go?

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LINDSAY MATTHEW

It is a question that is being posed with rising frequency by both increasingly desperate Celtic fans and anxious Rangers supporters as we reach the final days of 2020.

Will the Ibrox club be able to escape the calamitous bankruptcies that ended their Scottish championship run in the second half of the last two seasons in the coming months?

At the time, both in the 2018/19 and 2019/20 seasons, Steven Gerrard’s charges were in a good spot in the Premier League, and among their ever-optimistic fans, expectations were high that they could maintain their struggles and dethrone their city rivals as champions.

Nevertheless, in both seasons, Rangers suffered from the New Year’s blues, losing points at home and away to weaker opponents and ending the season far from the top of the table.

Since August, Rangers’ form has been nothing short of stunning – yesterday’s 2-1 victory over Tannadice’s Dundee United extended their unbeaten streak to 27 games – and their lead in the table is substantial.

It’s going to be fun to see if they have learned from previous mistakes and this time they can get it across the line.

But it will be just as fascinating to see how far James Tavernier and his teammates get in Europe in 2021.

There has been so much speculation and hysteria about the 10-in-a-Row since professional soccer resumed in this country in August that it has somehow overshadowed activities elsewhere – whether Celtic will make history and whether Rangers can stop them.

The narrow essence of the game here does not weaken the popularity of the Europa League’s Govan club. It is simply amazing what they have accomplished.

In recent years, Scottish teams have had some memorable moments in the continental competition. Only last season, when they entered the round of 16, Celtic beat Lazio home and away and Rangers defeated Braga in both matches.

The Ibrox outfit reached the UEFA Cup final in the not-too-distant past, and their Parkhead competitors progressed to the last 16 of the Champions League with a victory over Barcelona.

But Group D was topped by this Rangers side, winning four of their six games and losing two to gain a record points tally.

When they faced Benfica, Lech Poznan, and Standard Liege, they didn’t park the bus, apply pressure, press their luck, and then try to score on the counterattack – a pessimistic game plan that so many home teams have employed in recent years whenever they have faced top-flight international opponents.

In defense, they were, by and large, well-organized and protected, secure in possession and industrious in the midfield, and imaginative and ruthless in attack.

It is now predicted that a club that did not play a single European game for five years between 2011 and 2017 will win, and will win in style whenever it competes.

Last season, Bayer Leverkusen was too good for Rangers, winning their Europa League round of 16 clash by a comfortable 4-1 margin. But since then, they’ve changed. The defense has been improved by Leon Balogun, Glen Kamara has developed into an outstanding talent and Kemar Roofe has added an extra dimension to the attacking action.

They could face Dynamo Kiev, Lille, Olympiakos, Real Sociedad, Red Bull Salzburg or Slavia Prague in this afternoon’s draw for the last 32. If they advance, AC Milan, Arsenal, Leicester City, Manchester United, Napoli, Roma or Spurs may be waiting. But, given how good they’ve done so far, they wouldn’t fear any competitor.

The Betfred Cup, Europa League, Premier League and Scottish Cup games his men have to play in the coming weeks would be difficult for Gerrard to tackle, preventing any slip-ups. Injuries and suspensions will occur. But in the last two weeks, the matches against Falkirk and Lech Loznan have shown that he has the power to navigate a hectic fixture list safely.

He spared Allan McGregor, Tavernier, Steven Davis, Alfredo Morelos, Roofe, and Ryan Kent on Thursday night in Poland, and took on Jon McLaughlin, Nathan Patterson, Bongani Zungu, Cedric Itten, Ianis Hagi, and Joe Aribo. Without a collapse of standards, the visitors cruised to a comfortable 2-0 victory.

Walter Smith realized that the most important obstacle he faced was to win the Scottish championship crown.

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