IF you stand still, you go backwards. After years of striding forward in European competition, Rangers have regressed at an alarming and unacceptable rate in a matter of weeks.

This was once a side and a squad that believed they could go toe-to-toe with anyone on the continent. More often than not, they did just that as Steven Gerrard instilled character and injected quality into a club that was still reeling from that night in Luxembourg.

Emerging through four qualifying rounds to reach the Europa League in his first season, an achievement that was completed thanks to that nerve-shredding, heart-racing triumph in Ufa, wasn't just a small step forward for Rangers. It was a giant leap, the foundation for Gerrard's reign and title 55 and the run to Seville would never have happened had it not been for events in deepest, darkest Russia.

The draw in Villarreal and win over Rapid Vienna were special moments, occasions that reminded the support of where Rangers had come from and acted as an inspiration as to what could follow as pride was restored and reputations enhanced.

The same can be said of the matches that saw Legia Warsaw and Feyenoord conquered at Ibrox. Porto could have been beaten away and were then dispatched at home as Rangers became a force to be reckoned with at Europa League level, a side that opposition began to be wary of rather than one seen as easy pickings.

Braga were beaten that season as well and Benfica could have been the following term as Gerrard's side progressed from their group once again and combined European achievement with domestic dominance during a campaign that should have been the springboard for the years to come.

When the setback against Malmo was followed by the departure of Gerrard, there was a fear that Rangers would crumble on the continent. The way of playing, that ability to be compact and disciplined without the ball but so effective with it, went out the door when Gerrard left for Aston Villa.

The team has never quite looked or felt the same under Giovanni van Bronckhorst's guidance. The structure has not been as sound and matches were approached with more uncertainty about exactly how the 90 minutes would play out and what could be achieved individually and collectively.

Yet, the results could not be argued with last season as Borussia Dortmund, Red Star Belgrade, Braga and RB Leipzig were beaten on the road to Seville and Van Bronckhorst's side came within a shoot-out of immortality at Ibrox. That seems such a long time ago.

As the Dutchman analyses and assesses the defeat to Napoli, he must surely ponder how just five months have elapsed since that night against Eintracht Frankfurt when Rangers were so near yet so far. Right now, this doesn't feel like the same manager or largely the same group of players and Rangers' confidence on the continent has been shot to pieces.

The obvious factor in play is the step up in terms of the quality of competition and opposition but that cannot be used as a free pass when Rangers have been so abject across their Group A campaign and never looked like taking a point from any of their five fixtures.

Being outclassed by superior players is one thing. But being out-thought and out-fought so easily and so regularly is unforgivable and is far removed from what Rangers have been at European level in recent seasons.

Supporters didn't expect Van Bronckhorst's side to win four games out of six and qualify for the knock-out rounds. But that doesn't mean that they will stand for such ineptitude from the manager and his players and Rangers now run the risk of becoming the worst side in Champions League history.

It would be the ultimate ignominy for the club and the fact they find themselves in this position just 18 months after 55 and weeks on from Seville should shame the leaders in the boardroom and the dressing room as the reputation that was built up through so much time, money and effort has been tarnished with a series of pitiful performances.

The direction of travel is clear and the fingers of blame point in many directions on and off the park. While those they once saw as their equals have moved forward, Rangers have slipped back and are now some way from where they were, never mind where they wish to be.

Porto, behind Club Brugge, and Benfica have qualified from Group B and Group H respectively, while Frankfurt are battling Sporting CP and Tottenham for progression from Group D. Leipzig sit second in Celtic's section behind Real Madrid and Dortmund are on course to qualify alongside Manchester City in Group G.

Van Bronckhorst's statement about the finances required at this level in Amsterdam have set the tone for the campaign. Gerrard had his team believing that anything was possible but Van Bronckhorst's side have appeared beaten before they have stepped onto the park.

There are no excuses for not being able to compete over the course of 90 minutes and supporters have rightly been disheartened by clutching at straws talk regarding the showing against Napoli at Ibrox and second half in Italy on Wednesday evening. This campaign has not been good enough at any point.

The searches for positives merely paper over the cracks and suggestions that Van Bronckhorst and his players will learn from their mistakes can now be dismissed given that the same basic errors and failings continue to plague them. Those issues are not solely reserved for European football but they are exposed to a greater degree at that level.

Rangers waited 12 years to live the Champions League dream and earned it the hard way over four seasons. Now that it has turned into a nightmare, it cannot come to an end soon enough.

The visit of Ajax should have been seen as one all-or-nothing shot at glory in Group A. The fact that it could become a night of shame sums up just how far Rangers have fallen in such a short space of time.