THE anticipation levels are high but expectations are low. This will be a journey of a different kind for Rangers.

It many ways, it is a step into the unknown but it is also an important stride forward for the club as they embark on a European campaign for the first time in six years.

The Light Blue legions followed their team up the leagues and across the country from the Third Division back to the Premiership and now they will set off on their travels once again this month.

Loading article content

Read more: Matthew Lindsay: Forget Bruno Alves, Dalcio or Ryan Jack, Mark Allen will be Rangers' best summer signing

The trips to the likes of Peterhead, Stranraer and Alloa were a means to an end as games were won and titles were lifted on the road to recovery.

Now Rangers will clock up the miles once again as Pedro Caixinha looks to guide his side to the Europa League group stages in the coming weeks.

The path through the four qualifying rounds is arduous and it is unlikely that Rangers will reach their destination at the first time of asking. Caixinha’s side won’t win it, but it is important that they are taking part.

Since the Portuguese was appointed as Mark Warburton’s successor, there has been one date that has stood out on his calendar. It wasn’t the trip to Pittodrie or Old Firm fixture, it wasn’t the Scottish Cup semi-final or the last day of the campaign. It is June 29.

That is the day when the new season starts for Rangers and the moment that Caixinha has been building towards for a couple of months now.

He has recruited Bruno Alves, Ryan Jack, Fabio Cardoso, Dalcio and Daniel Candeias so far and there are further reinforcements to follow.

While Caixinha will have to initially do without the services of Alves as he represents Portugal at the Confederations Cup, he will hope that the rest of his acquisitions can hit the ground running in Light Blue.

Read more: Matthew Lindsay: Forget Bruno Alves, Dalcio or Ryan Jack, Mark Allen will be Rangers' best summer signing

This afternoon in Nyon, he will discover who lies in wait for his side when the draws for the first and second round are made.

If the final weeks of the campaign had gone to plan, had Rangers achieved what Caixinha set out to achieve and finished second in the Premiership and lifted the Scottish Cup, then Rangers would already be in the hat for the second stage.

Instead, they find themselves joined by St Johnstone and minnows from across the continent as one of 100 clubs preparing to kick-off next Thursday evening.

Unlike in previous seasons, UEFA have decided not to regionalise the draw so the list of possible opponents and destinations is lengthy for Rangers.

The Gers will be amongst the 50 sides that are seeded and while that should mean an easier tie on paper, it doesn’t guarantee it will be plain sailing.

Journeys to Armenia to face Pyunik Yerevan or Gandzasar, or to Georgia to take on Chikhura Sachkhere, Torpedo Kutaisi or Dinamo Batumi potentially lie in wait for Caixinha’s side.

The Ibrox boss will be confident that his side can progress but he would surely prefer to avoid a 6000 mile round-trip at this stage of his preparations.

A draw with Lincoln Red Imps twelve months on from their famous win over Celtic would be intriguing. Most of the opposition is unknown and unheralded at European level but, from Flora Tallinn in Estonia to NSI Runavik in the Faroes, supporters will still travel in their numbers.

There are a handful of potential opponents closer to home and the Gers could land a trip across the water to face Northern Irish outfits Coleraine or Ballymena United or to the Republic of Ireland to meet Shamrock Rovers or Cork City. Welsh trio Bala Town, Connah’s Quay and Bangor City would also be favourable draws.

Read more: Matthew Lindsay: Forget Bruno Alves, Dalcio or Ryan Jack, Mark Allen will be Rangers' best summer signing

No matter who comes out of the hat, the first round should be negotiated with relative ease, the matches offering Rangers crucial opportunities to build-up their match sharpness as well as get a couple of wins on the board. After that, the outlook is less certain, though.

Last season, only two teams from the 96 that entered at the first round – Maccabi Tel-Aviv and Gabala – made it through the three qualifying ties and play-off to reach the group stages.

The year before, the Azerbaijanis were joined by Rosenborg as the only survivors from the 102 sides that set out dreaming of joining some of the biggest names on the continent.

Maccabi are one of the teams that potentially lie in wait for the Gers in round two but far sterner tests may need to be passed if the Euro run is to extend to a fifth and sixth game.

Utrecht and Galatasaray are the stand-out sides but Caixinha will want to avoid the likes of Astra Guirgiu from Romania or Croatian side Hadjuk Split.

Once the ceremony is complete in Switzerland, Rangers can get back to the hard work and continue their preparations for the new campaign.

On Friday, the Premiership schedule will be released and it is those fixtures that are the most important one for Caixinha to consider.

The return to the Europa League is a welcome one for Rangers. It is a change of scenery and a fresh challenge as well as another box ticked.

It will be the trips to everywhere from Kilmarnock to Dingwall that will define Caixinha and the campaign, though.