When Rangers’ Europa League campaign began against little known Alashkert in the play-off round in August, playing in Seville months later was a far-fetched dream.
An unconvincing 1-0 win on aggregate over the Armenian side guaranteed the Scottish Premiership side a place in the group stage, but their European campaign threatened to be over before it even started.
Successive losses to Olympique Lyon and Sparta Prague saw them stare early elimination in the face, and they needed a response over the following four games to continue their continental run. Two wins and as many draws from the following four games meant the ‘Gers finished second behind high-flying Lyon who accrued eight more points in those opening six games.
- Reported Kaizer Chiefs target Mayele not for sale, Young Africans SC urge
- Ronaldo tells Man Utd he wants transfer - why CR7 wants out & where he could go
- Orlando Pirates chairman Khoza angered by 'insulting and demeaning' Riveiro criticism
- The King of Milan? Lukaku just another willing pawn in an increasingly absurd transfer market
Indeed, Rangers knew they had a mountain to climb with a clash with one of the Champions League’s eliminated clubs on the horizon. Supporters likely hoped for a favourable draw.
However, what they got was a meeting with Erling Haaland’s Borussia Dortmund. The Manchester City-bound forward was not quite fit for both clashes with Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s men — perhaps the slice of luck the Scottish side needed — and it is safe to say that 6-4 aggregate success fed the belief that has led them to Wednesday’s decider against Eintracht Frankfurt.
Indeed, that 4-2 win at the Signal Iduna Park in February was Joe Aribo’s finest game in Europe at the time. The midfield playmaker set up Alfredo Morelos with a flicked near-post header and played a part in the Scottish side’s fourth when he slipped the striker in for a strike that went in off Dan-Axel Zagadou.
Like Rangers, the Super Eagle has come alive in the knockout stages, carrying the can for the Scottish side en route to their first final appearance in this competition since 2008. Three of his assists have come in the elimination rounds, but it would be simplistic to limit his influence to goals and assists alone.
No player averaging five games or more has been involved in more shot-creating actions per 90 in the side, while the Nigerian leads for goal-creating actions as well. The value of Aribo’s involvement in open play further demonstrates the 25-year-old’s effect on van Bronckhorst’s men who need him to deliver a strong performance in Wednesday’s decider.
Calvin Bassey may not have scored as many as Leon Balogun’s two goals in their Europa League campaign, yet the versatile defender has arguably played a more significant role in their run to the final.
The 22-year-old has started all but two of Rangers’ games, fulfilling dual roles and becoming a reliable head at the heart of the defence. Only James Tavernier has outdone Bassey’s 30 blocks, although that comes with the caveat that the Englishman has played more than the Nigeria international who edges every teammate for tackles plus interceptions in their run to the final.
Despite not being tagged a pressing monster, the young defender’s timing of the press has caught the eye this year. He significantly outdoes every teammate for rate of successful pressures, indicating the Nigerian’s judgement without possession.
With the ball, an underrated passing range was showcased in their quarter-final turnaround against Sporting Braga. A sensational pin-point pass from deep inside his half found Kemar Roofe on the edge of the area, forcing Vítor Tormena to bring down the frontman inside the area.
The defender was shown a 42nd-minute red card for denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity and van Bronckhorst’s men played the rest of the game against undermanned opponents. This may never have happened had Bassey not backed himself to pick out his Jamaican teammate.
Wednesday’s final brings the tournament’s top scorers head to head, with Rangers scoring two more than Frankfurt’s 20 strikes before both face off in Seville. The Nigerian trio has contributed to six of those strikes, representing 27 percent of the Scottish outfit’s goals in the competition.
Eliminating two German sides en route to their first European final since that Zenit heartache in 2008 bodes well and the deposed Scottish champions seek to claim three successive scalps in this year’s competition.
For all their rich history, only a European Cup Winners Cup success in 1972 accounts for the club’s sole continental triumph in their 150-year history.
Aribo, Bassey and Balogun are 90 — maybe 120 — minutes from reigning supreme on the continent. The Nigerian trio are a hair's breadth from becoming heroes in Glasgow.
If they succeed, it will banish the hurt of losing the Premiership title to Celtic and see them match their fierce rivals for European titles won.
The latter are likely to remind Rangers of the superiority of their 1967 European Cup triumph over the continent’s secondary club cup competition, but the ‘Gers will not care in the slightest.
They will undoubtedly give their champions a hero’s welcome. And they are one game away from drinking it all in.