Did one single mistake cost Rangers the Champions League?

Did one single mistake cost Rangers the Champions League?
GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - MAY 02: Rangers Manager Steven Gerrard looks on during the Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership match between Rangers and Celtic at Ibrox Stadium on May 02, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

With Sunday’s home match against bottom side Ross County the only obstacle between us and a (minimum) 4-point gap at the top of the table, before another unwanted international break, things could certainly be worse at Ibrox. However, that is not to say that they couldn’t also be a lot better, with our Europa League campaign hanging in the balance and our form overall being a lot patchier than last season. Of course, it was always going to take something monumental to replicate the magic of 55, however, could it be possible to pinpoint one critical mistake as a potential turning point for the whole season?!

Cast your mind back (if you dare) to Tuesday 10th August and our sorry Champions League exit at the hands of Malmo. Let’s not forget, we were 1-0 up and they were down to 10 men. Then in the blink of an eye, we find ourselves 2-1 down (4-2 on aggregate) by conceding 2 very sloppy goals. The first of which, Balogun is drawn to the ball, forgets about Colak, and he’s left free to tuck it away. Just minutes later, Colak spins Balogun from a throw-in and dispatches it past McGregor, sending Ibrox into a stunned silence and Rangers into the Europa League, minus circa £30m of UCL revenue.

Malmo have shown themselves to be nothing special in the Champions League, as they sit rooted to the bottom of their group, with a -12-goal difference and 0 points from 4 games.

They’re certainly no better than us, so how did we lose that tie? Here’s the aforementioned “critical mistake” or at least a very decent question…

– why in the name of everything that’s red white and blue wasn’t Helander in defence that night???

Gerrard singled him out for praise in his post-match interview in Sweden, saying “Fil Helander, played at a Champions League level, I thought he was outstanding”. One would have to agree, however it doesn’t take much to see that Helander is without a doubt the best central defender at the club, by some considerable distance. Take nothing away from Balogun, we like him and he does a solid job for us, but on a night as big as that one, it is no understatement to say that it absolutely defies belief that Balogun was given the nod over Helander, the Swedish Helander too, it should be noted. Would big Fil have prevented one, if not both Malmo goals? Of course we’ll never know, however this is one that didn’t need any hindsight, just a bit of common sense in the first place, and who knows how differently things might have gone that night?

Clearly rotation of the centre backs is important to Gerrard, which is all well and good, provided you use them correctly. Following the Malmo game, we went on to face Dunfermline in the cup on the Friday night, where Simpson partnered Goldson, so it’s not as though Helander was being saved for that one. Strangely though, as soon as we dropped into the Europa League, big Fil got the nod ahead of Balogun for both games against the hapless Alashkert, with Balogun coming in against Ross County in between games. Clearly though, the damage had been done already and despite Balogun’s MOTM performance at RB, with Helander’s match winner against Celtic a few weeks later, our once watertight defence has not been anywhere near good enough this season, having conceded 11 domestic goals already. Remember we only shipped 13 in the whole campaign last year.

Now, if we suspend our disbelief for a second and imagine Helander being in the right place at the right time that night (I.e. goal side of Colak as opposed to sat on the bench) – we can’t help but wonder what players might have come through the door with that extra money and lure of the Champions League? Add to that the confidence that comes with dining at Europe’s top table, as well as a completely different chain of fixtures that may well have seen the likes of Helander saved for CL nights, leaving Balogun to play against the likes of St Johnstone away, and before you know where you are, the Sliding Doors comparison is quite remarkable –

3rd in our Europa League group, 4 points ahead in the league, patchy form, no money for new recruits, dreading the January transfer window.


Playing Champions League football, 7-10 points ahead in the league, full of confidence, good form, 1 or 2 extra high-quality players, no reason to want to offload anyone in January.

Of course, the above is hypothetical and it’s easy to brush over the fact that we’ve got a League cup semi final to look forward to, a realistic chance of Europa League progression, and despite not looking at our best, are still strong favorites to clinch 56 this year. At a club like ours though, there will always be a demand for more, sometimes it’s unrealistic and that’s okay, nobody is expecting us to win the Champions League anytime soon. However, when we potentially shoot ourselves in the foot, it’s a bitter one to swallow. Let’s hope that we kick on now, and have learned lessons from past mistakes.

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  1. You are correct in identifying that as the key match and maybe Helander could have made the difference. Balogun certainly had a stinker that but has gone on to become our best defender since. But you missed the reason Balogun was picked which, on the night, made perfect sense. Gerrard wanted to play on the front foot and get at Malmo. That usually involves playing Balogun to allow us to push further up the pitch and use his pace to recover balls in behind.
    Had we played Helander and drew 0-0 or 1-1 then your article today may be identifying not playing Balogun as the key reason why we got knocked out.

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