Having experienced very different fortunes on the opening night of the Champions League’s Group A, Rangers and Napoli meet at Ibrox on Wednesday.
In a fixture postponed by 24 hours, the hosts aim to bounce back from a chastening defeat to Ajax last week, while their Italian counterparts will hope to recapture the magic of their stirring win over Liverpool.
A week to forget at home and abroad saw Rangers start September in the sorriest fashion, and following heavy losses to Celtic in the Glasgow derby and in their Champions League opener, they have plenty of rebuilding to do – not least in terms of confidence.
Three days after a 4-0 capitulation to their arch-rivals in the Scottish Premiership, the Gers suffered a similar setback in Amsterdam, where they found themselves three goals down shortly after the half-hour mark.
Again beaten 4-0, after Borna Barisic saw a superb effort ruled out by the VAR, Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s men traipsed away from the Johan Cruijff ArenA with tails between their legs, having suffered the club’s fifth loss in as many meetings with Ajax down the years.
Due to the postponement of all football fixtures across Britain at the weekend, Rangers were spared the prospect of facing Aberdeen in the Premiership’s early kickoff on Saturday afternoon, so at least had the chance to fix their problems on the training ground.
Defensive improvement will surely have been top of the agenda: they have conceded as many goals in their last two matches as in their previous 10, and have already seen a five-point gap open up to Celtic at the top of the table.
After securing a Champions League group stage spot for the first time in 12 years, though, last season’s Europa League runners-up – who negotiated their way past Union SG and PSV in the qualifiers – will not give up on their last-16 dreams without a fight.
Already three points clear of their Group A rivals, and arriving in Scotland in fine form domestically, Napoli may not necessarily be the first opponents Rangers would choose to meet amid such a slump.
Europe sat up and took notice of the Azzurri’s electrifying display at Stadio Maradona on the opening night, as they roared into a 3-0 half-time lead against Liverpool – an advantage which would have been even greater but for a penalty save by Alisson.
Star striker Victor Osimhen also struck the post before Piotr Zielinski, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Osimhen’s replacement Giovanni Simeone all found the net in front of a rapturous Neapolitan crowd. Indeed, the latter needed just three minutes to score on his Champions League debut after appearing as a substitute.
Following a quick start to the 2022-23 campaign, successive Serie A draws may have slowed the momentum of Luciano Spalletti’s side, but a comeback win at Lazio to start September seems to have been the catalyst for their winning run.
It may have taken the best part of 90 minutes to break Spezia’s resistance on Saturday, but Napoli followed up on their seismic success against the 2019 European champions by snatching a 1-0 win through Giacomo Raspadori’s late strike – putting them top of the table after six rounds; ahead of Milan and Atalanta on goal difference.
Also top scorers in the Italian top flight so far, the Campanian club have had to rebuild their squad after a series of summer departures, but if anything, new boys Raspadori, Kim Min-jae and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (‘Kvaradona’ to the locals) have helped them forget their faltering finish last term.
Rangers Champions League form:
Rangers form (all competitions):
Napoli Champions League form:
Napoli form (all competitions):
We say: Rangers 1-1 Napoli
Rangers have only advanced from the group phase in one of their 10 previous participations, so the task which stands before them is quite clear following last week’s thumping by Ajax.
They will have learned their lessons from such a setback, though, and in front of a boisterous home crowd can push in-form Napoli all the way; securing their first Group A point.