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Can Rangers now avoid Champions League ignominy?

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Can Rangers now avoid Champions League ignominy?

And so, it has come to this. Just nine weeks on from the raucous celebrations in Eindhoven and the giddy excitement of the following day’s Champions League draw, Rangers have one more chance to spare themselves continental ignominy.

All the hope and anticipation has been whittled away, exposing the grim reality of trying to compete last season’s runners-up, one of the last 16, and a side that might well go on and claim the big shiny pot themselves this term.

Now, after five chastening losses, Rangers host Ajax on Tuesday knowing defeat would leave their imprint on this competition as the team with the worst ever group-stage performance.

Dinamo Zagreb – in 2011-12 – lost all six games and finished with a goal difference of -19. Rangers have lost five from five. They have conceded 18 more than they have scored.

Malik Tillman’s eyes widened when the gravity of the situation was laid bare after a cautiously creditable 3-0 miss-match against Napoli.

“I think everybody is going to be motivated to finally get a win,” said the forward of the Ajax encounter. “It’s massive for us and a big challenge. We’re going to try to win it.”

Defiant words, certainly, but matching that sort of talk with deed has proved beyond Rangers in Europe this season.

Liverpool have done for them twice. So, too, have Napoli. No disgrace in that, given the disparity in resources. Ajax are more lavishly-upholstered, too, but the manner in which the Ibrox side capitulated in their opener in the Netherlands was mortifying.

Even reversing that 4-0 scoreline next week would not be sufficient for Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side to snatch third place in the section. To tread the more forgiving terrain of the Europa League after new year, they need to score five with no reply.

‘Damaging, sobering, and a step too far?’

The manager asked for a show of character in Naples. For his players to smother any fear and embrace playing in the fervent surrounds of the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona.

And they did. But only after their rapier hosts punctured them twice in the opening 16 minutes with two goals of ruthless simplicity by Giovanni Simeone. The concession of Leo Ostigard’s late header was similarly straightforward.

“It was a tough watch,” said BBC Scotland pundit and former Rangers forward Neil McCann. “Napoli turned the engine down and allowed Rangers to get closer. It could have been a lot worse, because Napoli are a top side.”

McCann’s former team-mate Steven Thompson echoed those sentiments on Sportsound, calling the campaign “a step too far” for this group of players.

“I believe it’s had the opposite effect that a Champions League run should have on a club,” he said.

“It has been a sobering campaign. Van Bronckhorst will be desperate for it to be over. He will get more criticism after tonight and for him, and for the club, it has been damaging.”

Shafts of light to be found amid darkness

And yet the trip to Naples was not as disfiguring as had been feared by many of the Rangers fans who travelled despite not being permitted inside the stadium.

The Scottish Premiership side have been done five, six and – earlier this month by Liverpool – seven in Europe before. One supporter muttered in hushed tones that eight wasn’t out of the question this time.

But despite Napoli’s early brace amplifying those concerns, Rangers did not collapse.

Granted, their hospitable hosts eased off but there was a diligence, a resolve, and even a little ambition from the visitors. Indeed, quite how Alfredo Morelos did not convert Ridvan Yilmaz’s tempting cross remains a mystery.

It means Rangers go into Saturday’s critical meeting with Aberdeen a little less vulnerable than they otherwise might have.

Four points adrift of Celtic and amid a slog of dreary domestic displays, they need a performance as much as result to replenish some of the supporters’ belief in the increasingly beleaguered manager.

Thompson said victory at the weekend “buys Van Bronckhorst time”. Another three days later would buy Rangers some continental consolation at the end of a humbling few weeks.

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