NIKOLA KATIC spent his first season at Rangers playing against the best players in Scotland and some of the finest in the Europa League.

During his first summer, he would take on the top young talents in the European game before meeting modern-day legends. It is no surprise, then, that the defender feels he has improved significantly. One year after moving from Slaven Belupo, he is older, wiser, better.

The campaign wasn’t wholly positive for Katic but he has emerged stronger from the trials and tribulations and saw his efforts for his club rewarded at international level as he turned out for Croatia at the Under-21 European Championships.

Katic couldn’t help his country progress from Group C as they lost to Romania and France and then drew with England but the experience was invaluable for the stopper.

It was one he had little time to dwell on after he joined up with Steven Gerrard’s squad at their training base in Portugal on Wednesday. The break was short, but he was pleased to get back down to action.

The likes of Virgil van Dijk, John Terry and Phil Jones were in attendance at the Gers’ base in the Algarve as Gerrard stepped up his preparations for the new campaign.

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Katic will be back in competitive action in a fortnight when Rangers return to Europa League duty and the 22-year-old will embark on his second term at Ibrox on the back of a positive summer personally and professionally.

“I had a break before so that was enough for me,” Katic said. “I didn’t play the last game against Killie so I had that week plus two more weeks. For me, that was not bad.

“It was a really good experience for me [at the European Championships] because I played against top teams in England and France and the quality of those teams are really high. For me, it was a good experience and a good lesson.

“Probably Phil Foden was the toughest player I played against. He is an amazing player. For the strikers, [Tammy] Abrahams or Moussa Dembele. They were strong.

“Foden is very calm on the ball, he can see everything behind me and behind him as well. He is very good technically. He is very small, but he is amazing on the ball.

“I have played against him and he plays for City, who are probably the best team in England and one of the best teams in the world. He is part of that team and that can only help you to step up to the next level.

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“I think I have improved a lot as a player in the last year, especially in Scotland playing against good strikers and with my team-mates. Then I went to the Championships and played against really top players so I think that was maybe not just one but two steps up for me. I learned a lot as a player.

“I have definitely improved a lot. When I go head to head with the strikers like [Sam] Cosgrove or the strikers at Celtic, and now the strikers from England and France, that makes me a better player.”

Little was known about Katic when he joined up with Gerrard’s squad at their pre-season base in Spain last summer but his arrival in Portugal this week was warmly welcomed by supporters.

The defender has established himself as a favourite with the Ibrox crowd and many hope to see him go from strength to strength in the coming months as Rangers bid for domestic silverware.

A positive start to the season was followed by a frustrating spell as he lost his form and his place. He would finish the campaign impressively as he proved his character and his credentials.

Joe Worrall and Gareth McAuley no longer provide competition to Katic and Connor Goldson but George Edmundson has arrived from Oldham. Another centre-half will be also be brought in this summer as Katic prepares for a fight once again.

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“That also helped me because when I was out of the team I saw things from the other way,” Katic said. “Sometimes you need that and I am happy that I could come back into the team and show my quality. Now I have played games at the European Championships and that will also help me.

“It was difficult for me to be out of the team and it is difficult to watch your team-mates when you are out of the team. But I think I have a really strong character and I was always pushing to get back. That helped me and I got back in the team to show my quality.

“I want to play and I want to be better than the other centre-backs so I have to show my quality in the training sessions and the games if I want to play. That is my goal and what I am looking for. I’ve come here to play for Rangers. I am not here to sit on the bench. I respect all players but I look at myself and I want to be in the manager’s first eleven.”

The goals for Katic are clear as he looks to prove his worth to boss Gerrard and establish himself second time around at Ibrox.

The progress was clear to see from the Light Blues last term but they would end the season empty-handed once again. That has to change and Gerrard has wasted little time in getting his plans in place for a crack at the title and domestic silverware.

Katic said: “‘We have kept a lot of players from last season and with the quality of the new players we have brought in I think we have a really good team. I think we can do well in Europe and also hopefully fight for first place in the championship.

“There’s a good feeling around the club. When you look at Rangers two years ago there was not the same quality that there is now.

“The last five or six games of last season we showed our quality. Maybe in the first year we had a lot of new players together but we have played a year beside each other now and I think we are ready to push and fight for the title.

“Yes, definitely [there is pressure on us]. It was a new start last year but we are together for a year now and we know what to expect at away games like Aberdeen. We will be ready for everything.”