Qualifying for the group stages had no doubt restored a lot of pride in the team, and the club itself. However, the next round was a chance to make a statement. To show the watching world that Rangers were back.
It was no easy task and indeed many of our detractors had us down to be the group whipping boys. It seemed that may be the case when Carlos Bacca put Villarreal ahead in the first minute of the opening game.
From there, it was a difficult night and you would be forgiven for thinking that we could have been in for a bit of a spanking. But for all Villarreal ’s possession and all the attempts on goal they had, they weren’t exactly working Allan McGregor. Of the 21 shots Villarreal had that night only four were on target.
Rangers grew into the game and when Scott Arfield equalised on the 67th minute, after superb work from James Tavernier, it felt deserved. What followed two minutes later can only be described as a massive kick in the nuts when Gerard Moreno put Villarreal back in front.
All the good work of the last 70 minutes seemed to be undone and surely a second equaliser would be beyond us now? Surely! Borna Barisic was very much at fault for Villarreal ’s equaliser as he, and the rest of the defence to be fair, switched off. However, he went some way to redeeming himself with an excellent cross to set up Kyle Lafferty for the second goal and earn Rangers a point.
Villarreal missed a couple of guilt edge chances to win the game and Arfield came close to nicking the points for Rangers. Lafferty’s beautiful finish got us off to a great start in the group and showed, whatever else happens, we were no-one’s whipping boy.
Match night two at Ibrox would be a vital night. If we were going to get out of this group, we would have to be formidable at home. A sold out and noisy Ibrox bubbled and swelled with excitement and hope. They said Villarreal would hammer us, they didn’t. What other surprises did we have in store?
When I get on to talking about the domestic campaign, I’m sure I will mention referees frequently. However, it must be mentioned that the officiating we received in Europe was as bad, if not worse, than what we received back home.
Rapid Vienna would open the scoring at Ibrox with a goal that was clearly offside in the build-up. The clue for the linesman, who was no more than a foot away Andrei Ivan, that the Rapid winger was offside was the fact he was clearly beyond him as the ball was played. Ivan would take advantage of the mistake and set up Veton Berisha to make it 1-0.
With the goal going in on the 42nd minute, this could have been a massive blow to Rangers. However, the team responded superbly, and Alfredo Morelos had us level again just a minute later. What could have been a deflated Ibrox was now pumped and roaring through half time and into the second half.
Rangers had the better of the second half with Rapid happy to try and hit on the break. It looked like we would have to settle for a point and lacked that cutting edge needed to claim the win. The team kept going and got their reward six minutes from time when Morelos was brought down in the box. Captain Tav stepped up and it was never in doubt where his penalty was going.
Rangers had the lead and Ibrox let the team know of their delight. Rapid would come forward looking to try and snatch a point but they were to be undone by a fantastic back heel from Daniel Candeias and a cool finish supplied by Morelos.
The final whistle went and the 3-1 win for Rangers was greeted by a Rangers support that could have stayed inside the stadium all night singing. It was a fantastic night and, incredibly, after two games we topped the group. The next two games, the back to back header against Spartak Moscow, would go a long way in deciding our fate.
The first match against Spartak at Ibrox was an incredibly frustrating affair. Rangers bossed the game, but Spartak came looking to spoil and they did just that. It’s amazing to think at the start of this campaign we would be disappointed with drawing 0-0 with Spartak Moscow but it showed how this team and our expectations had grown. We were still top of the group and just gained our sixth clean sheet and 11th game in a row undefeated in Europe. Unfortunately, this is where the run would end.
A win would all but secure Rangers passage into the next round. Getting a result in Russia is no easy task, but we had done it once before this season. Rangers got off to a perfect start when an own goal from a Glenn Middleton corner put us ahead in five minutes.
Poor defending and a failure to learn from past mistakes would be our downfall on this night. Spartak were level on 22 minutes when Candeias switched off and allowed Lorenzo Melgarejo in to head home at the back post.
Candeias made up for his defence lapse five minutes later when he scored a quite superb goal to put Rangers back in front. This lead lasted only eight minutes when Connor Goldson made the bizarre decision to attempt to clear the ball with the outside of his right foot rather than the inside of his left. The ball skidded off Goldson’s boot and into the back of Rangers’ goal.
As poor as were at the back we were determined and superb in an attacking sense. Middleton had Rangers in front again before the break, however, the game was to swing on what happened a minute later.
Rangers, buoyant from taking the lead for a third time, went forward again and Middleton laid on a perfect cross-field pass for Morelos who made no mistake with the finish. Rangers, 4-2 ahead, or so it would seem. The linesman’s flag was up and Rangers were denied a perfectly good goal.
It’s hard to say this didn’t turn the game. Spartak would score two goals in the second half, thanks in a large put to some schoolboy defending, to secure the win. When the full-time whistle blew, you couldn’t help feeling that this was a massive opportunity missed in both games against Spartak. We could have walked away with six points but had to settle for only one.
The result meant we were now third in the group and would have to get something from our last two games to qualify. Villarreal up next at Ibrox and McGregor was once again the hero as he pulled of save after save in the first half to keep Rangers level.
The referees again played their part and if Rangers had any intent of really going for it in the second half that was spoiled when Candeias received a second booking for what appeared to be a foul committed by Morelos. The linesman on the Sandy Jardine side had noticed that Candeias had already been booked, but not that the referee had booked the wrong man.
Rangers held out in the second half and for a second, we thought we had a winner when Glenn Middleton scored on the 76th minute. This time, the goal was correctly ruled out for offside.
Going into the last game nothing but a win would do, but a win would do it! Unfortunately,
the Rangers team that headed to Vienna was a tired and dogged one. We were now five months and one day into our European adventure, a busy December and a stuttering league campaign was starting to show its effects.
It was a poor match that you could say Rangers had the better of. However, when Dejan Ljubicic put Rapid ahead with only six minutes to go it was goodnight Vienna for Rangers in Europe.
Third and on six points is where Rangers would finish. It’s incredible to think that going undefeated at Ibrox and against Villarreal would not be enough and feel disappointing. However, qualifying for the group stages was still an incredible achievement for the team and rubbing shoulders with the big boys in Europe again was an important step in our recovery.
From here, all attentions returned to home.