Rangers have been left battered and bruised by a meandering Champions League run that leaves them in the record books for all the wrong reasons.
The Ibrox club were seeded fourth in a brutal group and duly finished fourth.
This is the fifth time Rangers have finished last in 11 group campaigns, so it’s nothing new.
But there are some unwanted firsts, becoming the only Scottish side to suffer six consecutive group defeats and reaching a minus-20 goal difference, the worst the competition has ever seen.
It was also a chastening club-record home defeat along the way, with Liverpool netting seven after Scott Arfield had the audacity to score first.
“They’ve looked lost at this level,” former Ibrox striker Steven Thompson said on BBC Radio Scotland. “It is almost embarrassing for the club to have this European record.
“Despite the financial gap, Rangers should have been more competitive. To lose all six games in the way they did – Rangers need to put this campaign behind them.”
“Europe a cruel and unusual punishment”
Europe is supposed to be a reward for the hard work put in over the previous season – but this seems like a cruel and unusual punishment for the team that made it all the way to the Europa League final in May.
Remember Rangers were a penalty kick away from pot one status. But the unforgiving nature of the Champions League is proven by Group A rivals Liverpool and Napoli who come from pots two and three.
The spending power of these two and Ajax completely outweighs the resources available at Ibrox and it has made a striking difference.
Ajax has also felt it. This time last year they entered the last sixteen on maximum points, now they limp into the Europa League, with two wins over Rangers all they could muster.
Confidence will have been shaken at Ibrox by a string of one-sided defeats and it doesn’t look like things will get any easier should Rangers make a swift return to Europe’s top table.
The club’s Champions League form book reads one win in their last 22 group stage matches and a Scottish club will never close the gap to the big-spending elite.
“The positive thing is that we operated at the highest level after 12 years,” says manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst. “We’ve got to get better – any time you’re not in the right positions you’re going to struggle against any team. We’ve got to learn.
“I read a lot of stories about us striking gold with so many millions coming in – that’s not true. It creates an expectation that we can buy new players, but I don’t think the club will spend millions if the money isn’t there .”
“Perceptions have lacked foundations”
Ahead of the 3-1 home defeat to Ajax, Van Bronckhorst had said “we can compete with them on the day and especially at Ibrox”, while in the aftermath he pointed to a solid first half against Liverpool and an hour or so against Napoli in Glasgow.
But the hard truth is that, even with the huge step up in class and a long injury list, performances have been lacking in some fundamentals.
“The performance wasn’t aggressive enough,” lamented Ibrox hero Ally McCoist on BT Sport. “Rangers sat back against a team that was technically better than them. Rangers failed them and left Ajax comfortable.”
Former full-back Richard Foster went further, telling BBC Radio Scotland: “There’s zero positives because I don’t see the learning. They’re still not tracking runners behind.
“The team that I saw play in the Europa League final – it’s night and day in terms of the intensity, the quality.”
Joe Aribo gave Rangers the lead in the Europa League final, while Calvin Bassey was the star of the escape to Sevilla. Both were sold in the summer.
With the exception of Antonio Colak, who scored in both legs of the play-off against PSV Eindhoven to end a 12-year exile from Europe’s top table, new recruits are either injured or not looking up to scratch.
That said, not many would have identified Bassey as a £20m player in his first season at Ibrox.
Perhaps the most significant dereliction of duty has been letting Ryan Kent and Alfredo Morelos slog into the final 12 months of their contracts, both shadows of their former selves.
Morelos, who scored a club-record 27 European goals, somehow managed to miss an open goal as a second-half substitute, while Kent, such an influential, marauding figure on last season’s Europa League nights, was peripheral again.
No matter how many times the high resistance is stressed, confidence will have been shaken.
Van Bronckhorst must now lift his depleted squad again and hope his side can respond in the manner that swept Aberdeen away at the weekend.
“Now we have to switch back to the league and try to win the trophies we are still involved in,” he said. “Europe for us this season is over.” And how…
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