Last Friday, Rangers found out their Europa League group stage opponents. This was the reward for negotiating ties against FK Shukpi, NK Osijek, NK Maribor and FC Ufa. They now have two matches each against Villarreal, Spartak Moscow and Rapid Vienna in group G.
I am going to take a closer look at each side and what threats they could pose to Steven Gerrard’s men:
Villarreal from Spain’s top flight have been European regulars for several years now. Most notably with their semi-final appearance in the Champions League of 2005-06 where they lost to Arsenal.
However, they made this season’s Europa League by finishing in 5th place, 12 points behind Valencia who grabbed the final Champions League place. Unfortunately for them, their start to the current season is their worst in over 20 years, which has saw them pick up only one point from fixtures against Sevilla, Real Sociedad and Girona.
Bruno Soriano DM – He’s likely to miss the first match, but Soriano is the leader. He’s like a 34-year-old Sergio Busquets. Very classy operator. He’s been badly missed this season so far as he’s been out with an injury. He’s the one who gets them started and he’s so important to their build-up play.
Santi Cazorla CM – You know what you get with the ex-Arsenal man. His passing is wonderful and he’s able to cut open any defence, but his physical edge may just be on a downward spiral. He’s back at his former club and he appears to be relishing it.
Gerard Moreno CF – He’s their top scorer thus far with the solitary goal against Real Sociedad. He’s another player who is very elegant and likes to drop deep, get turned and play in the pockets in behind the opponent’s midfield. He’s a good finisher as well, on the hole.
Mario Gaspar RB – Mario is very important to how Villarreal set up. He’s the main source of width from the right-back area, and he’s currently the stand-in captain due to Bruno Soriano’s injury. His crossing ability is second to none and will cause all sorts of problems if he is allowed to fire the balls into the area at will. However, due to Villarreal’s playing style, he is often caught upfield which leaves his side exposed.
Javier Calleja moved Villarreal away from the flat 4-4-2 and now they play with a diamond in midfield.
Of course, like most Spanish sides, they are technically proficient. If there was a way to describe their style of play, it would be very similar to Arsenal under Arsene Wenger. They love a triangle, between the back two and the defensive midfielder, allowing them to build up patiently. Gerard Moreno will drop off the front and allow Ekoko to try and stretch the defence, while Pablo Fornals will float in the ‘Riquelme’ role. Cazorla and Trigueros keep the ball moving on either side of the diamond. Most of their width comes from the full-backs due to their narrow system.
As they play mostly on the front foot, their base isn’t very solid. When they are dealing with their opponents counter attacks, they leave plenty of space in the full-back areas when attacking and that is an area which Rangers could exploit. Furthermore, it is important that Rangers do not camp in against them, as they can cut you open at will. The way to cause them problems is to be resolute and physical in the midfield area, cutting out the passing lanes for Cazorla and Fornals.
Interestingly, they are quite passive when defending. Having watched their recent match vs Girona, they allowed Girona plenty of opportunity to attack them. It was so end-to-end; the best way to describe the match was very basketball-like.
History against Rangers
Both teams contested a last-16 tie in the 2005/06 Champions League. The first leg was a 2-2 draw at Ibrox. And the second leg at El Madrigal ended 1-1, which saw the Spanish side progress to the quarter-final.
Villarreal should and will be looking to win the group. Despite their poor start domestically, they are by far the best side in this group and it will be a major shock if they didn’t top the group.
Spartak got to this stage by failing in the Champions League qualifiers. They fell 3-2 on aggregate to Greek side PAOK in the third round of qualifying. However, domestically, they remain unbeaten this season after six games: four wins and two draws, including their most recent game which was a 0-0 away to Zenit.
Denis Glushakov CM – Glushakov is the natural leader in midfield. He was the driving force behind the magnificent 2016/17 title win with a number of vital goals and box-to-box performances. He was surprisingly left out of Russia’s World Cup squad this summer, but he has started this season in inspired form. The no.8 is certainly someone who will catch the eye. His long-range efforts will be something that causes concern.
Roman Zobnin CM – Roman Zobnin, Glushakov’s midfield partner, plays a more understated role that allows Glushakov to control play. We saw how good he could be at the World Cup, and still only 24, he does the dirty work in midfield, aided by Fernando, who sits in front of the back four.
Spartak coach Massimo Carrera is more famous for being Antonio Conte’s assistant, but he’s a championship-winning manager is his own right, he led Spartak to the 2016/17 title.
Carrera favours a 4-3-3 system, where the midfield three of Glushakov, Zobnin and Fernando are the hub of his side.
They are a danger from set-plays. Fernando is the dead-ball expert and this season alone they have scored three headed goals, so far they have 10 in total in the Russian Premier League.
Their defence is very solid. Despite losing three goals at PAOK in the Champions League qualifiers, they have only conceded one league goal. That is a consequence of how Carrera sets his team up without the ball. They set up in a 4-1-4-1 shape without the ball and Glushakov is the one who triggers the press from the centre of the four. They are the anti-Villarreal for the want of a better term, they will work hard to deny teams space to play through them and more often than not will take a yellow card when needed to disrupt attacks of their opponents.
Despite their attacking threat from set-plays, they do like to play with an element of controlled possession. However, it’s not just possession for possession’s sake. In the 4-3-3 system, you will see the wingers take turns at coming inside to join the striker – either Ze Luis or Luiz Adriano – and they will be ably backed up by Glushakov. Their high tempo, short passing game will be difficult to deal with at times. They appear to be a well-drilled side with good players in every department of the team.
History against Rangers
There is no history between the clubs in European competition.
The Russians will have their eyes firmly fixed on that second spot.
Rapid qualified for this stage after finishing third in the Austrian Bundesliga behind Sturm Graz and eventual champions RB Salzburg. To get to this stage, they had to see off Slovan Bratislava in the third qualifying round and Steaua in the play-off round. Their start to the league season has been mixed. They currently sit in sixth place with nine points from six games: two wins, three draws and one defeat.
Richard Strebinger GK – He’s been in fantastic form so far in 2018/19. And, he has been called up into the Austrian national team off the back of it. Although he has not always been the most confident of goalkeepers, his shot-stopping is second to none in the Austrian Bundesliga. Saved a late shot against Steaua in stoppage time onto the bar to see Rapid into the group stages.
Bolingoli Mbombo (referred to as Bolingoli) LB – Romelu Lukaku’s cousin. Absolute speed demon down the left and is particularly dangerous going forward. Not always the best defensively and has a habit of being caught out once or twice a game – but he is always a handful for the opposition.
Stefan Schwab CM – Captain and the leader of this team. Technically very strong and will dictate play as a deep-lying playmaker. Extremely strong in the air from set-pieces and has a habit of lurking on the edge of the box to score important goals from open play too.
Christoph Knasmullner AM – The number 10 signed from Barnsley after a poor spell in the Championship where he was barely given a chance. He’s nicknamed “Mr Europa League” after scoring four times in three Europa League qualifying games this season – also has two assists too. Knasmullner is technically very strong, but his form tends to fluctuate quite a lot. He originally broke through at the same time as David Alaba and was actually viewed as a ‘bigger’ talent but his mental strength has let him down in the past.
Thomas Murg RW – Murg is such a talented player. Additionally, he’s a tricky and quick winger who can also play through the middle. He is the replacement Louis Schaub, who moved to Koln. His general play is one of a fluid nature, and seamlessly, he often acts as the link between Knasmüllner and the rest of the attacking players. If he plays well, Rapid generally win games.
Rapid’s coach, Goran Djuricin, prefers the 4-2-3-1 system; he almost never deviates from it. Naturally, his side are very attacking. Being one of the biggest sides in the Austrian Bundesliga, you would expect that to be the case. In terms of their style of play from an attacking standpoint, they build from the back with slow possession and often look for balls over the top for the wingers, mainly Murg and Berisha to run in behind and use their pace.
Furthermore, they are very good on the quick transition from attack to defence, again with the pace of the wide players being a key component. They manage to score all types of goals: whether that is from corners, counter-attacks or Knasmüllner arriving late into the box after the striker has dropped deep to create space for him to arrive.
They do enjoy a high press, the front four are usually very hardworking and it when it comes to pressing, Murg, in particular, seems to relish it.
One weak point is their defence. Particularly crosses being played across their box, which they seemed to have conceded from quite a lot this season, especially down their right-hand side; that would be an area to target.
History against Rangers
Rapid and Rangers have history from the 1964/65 European Cup. Rangers won 1-0 in the first leg at Ibrox. And then managed a 2-0 victory in Vienna to win the tie 3-0 on aggregate.
Rapid are happy to be back in Europe. They aren’t expecting to do much in this group. So they could be a dangerous opponent if they adopt that carefree attitude.
* I would like to thank Tim Armitage – @FRFussballTim and Andrew Flint for their help gaining information regarding Rapid Vienna and Spartak Moscow.