Rangers and Celtic Europa League wins lift Scottish football

Rangers manager Steven Gerrard shakes hands with Celtic boss Neil Lennon
Image: What would Old Firm success in Europe mean for Scottish football?

Thursday was the biggest night for Scottish football in over a decade as Rangers and Celtic both won, but what does it mean going forward. Sky Sports News reporter Charles Paterson takes a closer look

Quite unexpected, perhaps slightly surprising, but most certainly welcome. Rangers' comfortable defeat of Porto at Ibrox, two hours after Celtic's last-minute heroics against Lazio in Rome, capped the best night for Scottish football in European competition for many seasons.

Rangers celebrate winning 3-0 at Lyon in the Champions League in 2007
Image: Rangers celebrate winning 3-0 at Lyon in the Champions League in 2007

It's over 12 years since both Old Firm clubs turned over European heavyweights in the same week. Rangers upset Lyon 3-0 in France on October 2, 2007 in the Champions League - the following night Celtic beat AC Milan 2-1 at Celtic Park. To round off a memorable week, Aberdeen reached the UEFA Cup group stages the next day, knocking out Dnipro from Ukraine.

That season Celtic reached the Champions League last 16, Rangers progressed to the UEFA Cup Final and Aberdeen qualified for the last-32 of the same tournament, holding Bayern Munich to a draw at Pittodrie. Ever since then, Scottish clubs have struggled to make an impact in Europe, barring a few one-off results.

Scott McDonald and Chris Killen celebrate during Celtic's 2-1 win over AC Milan in 2007
Image: Scott McDonald and Chris Killen celebrate during Celtic's 2-1 win over AC Milan in 2007

From the moment Rangers went into financial meltdown in 2012, Celtic largely ploughed a lone furrow in Europe, with only Aberdeen having the ability to regularly win qualifying ties and contribute consistently to Scotland's European co-efficient - even then they were unable to reach the Europa League group stages.

"What you're telling me has happened here [recently] isn't good enough for the size of clubs that are up here", said Rangers manager Steven Gerrard.

"The history of Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen - we've all got a responsibility to try and improve that because for the last decade it hasn't been good enough. The clubs here deserve to be in Europe - the fans need it. We can only focus on what we do here, first and foremost getting the respect back."

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Most of the credit for Thursday's impressive results should go to the two managers. Gerrard is unbeaten in 13 European games at Ibrox since taking over 18 months ago, but this group stage campaign has been a step forward from a year ago. Home draws with Spartak Moscow and Villarreal ultimately cost his team qualification last season, but the dismantling of Porto, after having the better of them in the first meeting in Portugal, proved Rangers are now capable of holding their nerve at crucial moments.

Rangers scored twice to upset Porto at Ibrox in the Europa League
Image: Rangers scored twice to upset Porto at Ibrox in the Europa League

Neil Lennon has long showed the nous to pull big results out of the bag in Europe. He was the first Celtic manager to achieve an away Champions League win, against Spartak Moscow in 2012.

In the same season, he masterminded the unforgettable win over Barcelona in Glasgow. Now he has orchestrated Celtic's first win on Italian soil.

Tactically his teams in Europe have shown flexibility, bravery and grit - the view of many Celtic supporters is that this result could not have been achieved under Brendan Rodgers, who for all his domestic dominance, struggled to achieve standout results in Europe and often shipped goals at an alarming rate. Lennon has achieved knockout qualification with two games to spare.

"It's good for the reputation of the game here, which takes a battering, sometimes overly. I think it's good recognition for Scottish football", said Lennon.

Of course, Celtic and Rangers are not yet back at the elite level. For now, the Europa League is proving fruitful, but Celtic's failure to qualify for the Champions League in the last two years proves there is a huge gap to be bridged. Yet the signs are promising.

Scotland currently sit fifth in this season's country co-efficient table - only clubs from Spain, England, Germany and the Netherlands have gained more points than Scottish clubs this season. Scotland continues to rise up the co-efficient table as UEFA prepare to introduce a third European competition in 2021-2022.

Celtic boss Neil Lennon celebrates with match-winner Olivier Ntcham
Image: Celtic boss Neil Lennon celebrates with match-winner Olivier Ntcham

The possibility exists that by the time that season comes around, the Scottish Premiership could be one of the top 15 leagues in Europe - this would guarantee two places in Champions League qualifying. Below the Old Firm, the door would at the same time open for more Scottish clubs to qualify for European football.

While Champions League football brings in much more money, the gap on the pitch to Europe's top table remains huge - would Rangers and Celtic fans accept the extra funds alongside the possibility Europe's biggest teams could sweep them aside? Is a Europa League run, while less lucrative, more aesthetically pleasing - possibly even offering a trophy at the end of it? It's quite a quandary for supporters to consider.

It would be wrong to say the game in Scotland has suddenly been reborn after Thursday's events. Firstly, the Old Firm do not encapsulate Scottish football; the other 10 teams fighting for success beneath them in the Scottish Premiership, and many more beyond the top flight, would agree with that. Many here would argue the league turned a corner some time ago; crowds are growing year-on-year, and most clubs now understand the importance of developing young talent and - largely - living within their means.

What these two results do firmly represent is the Old Firm's re-emergence as European forces to be reckoned with. With Celtic through, and Rangers in touching distance of qualification, European knockout football in February promises much as winter sets in.

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