For the first time in 10 years, Scotland started the Champions League with two clubs. Both were eliminated within two weeks before the play-off phase.
Rangers followed Celtic into the Europa League after a bitter home defeat to Malmö.
Four games have been played that season, three painful losses, with those European losses bridging a Scottish Premier League chastised by Dundee United. Is this a temporary rash or are there any major issues for Steven Gerrard and his squad?
BBC Scotland considers four key questions for the Scottish champion.
What went wrong in Europe?
After Pedro Caixinha’s Rangers suffered the shame of losing to Luxembourg Minnows Progress Niederkorn in 2017, Gerrard’s arrival at Ibrox signaled an upswing on the European stage.
An unbeaten run through Europa League qualifiers in 2018 and third place in the group stage was beaten the following season by reaching the last 16 – a stage they did again last season.
But even during these successful campaigns, the Rangers lost an alarming number of goals. Slavia Prague, Standard Liège, Antwerp and Benfica each scored two goals at Ibrox last season, with the latter two also scoring three at home. In the preseason, Sporting Braga and Bayer Leverkusen also met at least twice in Govan.
This month it is Malmö who have scored two goals in both games. Gerrard, however, rejected suggestions that individual mistakes were to blame – “we made two restarts badly wrong and paid for them” – and insisted that the Rangers must learn to defend better as a team in continental competition.
Is playing in front of an audience a problem?
Gerrard urged fans to help his team overcome their first leg defeat. In retrospect, he might have preferred an empty Ibrox.
In the four games this season with a large crowd, the Rangers have lost three. Before Covid-19 ended the 2019-20 season, the Rangers only won two out of six games in front of spectators. But in the time when empty stadiums formed the backdrop, the Rangers remained unbeaten for an entire league season and reached the round of 16 of the Europa League.
Obviously the sample size is too small to explain that Gerrard’s squad has a problem, but the return of fans has undoubtedly changed the dynamics of games across Europe. Has the Rangers players got used to it and paid the price for it?
Do you have to sell players now?
Malmö coach Jon Dahl Tomasson spoke mischievously ahead of the game that the Rangers “need the money for the Champions League” and that not going to the group stage will certainly cost them a substantial sum.
Does that mean the Ibrox board will be more receptive to offers to players? After all, managing director Stewart Robertson said last December they had to “postpone a player or two a year” to follow the club’s business model.
Alfredo Morelos has long been associated with a move. Glen Kamara has suitors. Ryan Kent has drawn covetous looks from the English Premier League. And could the appearance of Nathan Paterson lead the Rangers to take advantage of James Tavernier?
“This will have a huge financial impact on the Rangers,” said former Ibrox defender Richard Foster on Sportsound. “We keep hearing how much debt they owe and how much it costs per season. You have to sell players.
“Losing their greatest fortune weakens them dramatically. It’s going to be a difficult time. I can imagine there will be a bit of movement because they probably can’t afford to go through the season without the money from the Champions League. “
However, another former Ibrox player, Charlie Adam, believes the Rangers will ride the storm. “They will be fine financially,” said the Dundee midfielder. “There will be one or two that they could sell. Maybe Morelos could go, but I don’t think it’ll be all guns on fire and people out the door.
“Ross Wilson [sporting director], the manager and the owners will have planned not to get into the Champions League. It just changes what kind of players they can use, if any. “
Back of the Scottish Daily Mail dated Wednesday
Can the Europa League restore prestige?
Despite beating Malmo, the Rangers are guaranteed continental football until at least December. Kazakhstan’s Kairat Almaty or Alashkert from Armenia await in the Europa League play-off round – they tie 0-0 on Thursday – but a loss to either of these teams would put the Ibrox club in the new team’s group stage leave the European Conference League.
With that, the Rangers could still enjoy a fruitful season in Europe. They have shown in the group stage over the past few seasons that they can shine and there may still be big European nights ahead.
“They are in the process of qualifying for the Europa League,” added Adam. “If they get through this and get into the group stage, they’ll still make money from it.
“But winning the Premiership will be the greatest for you, because it will automatically qualify you for the Champions League next year.”