Part 2 – A blog for Europe
The European campaign once again showed the quality of Steven Gerrard’s team. Three qualifiers handled with ease, finishing top of the table in the group stages and a last 16 appearance for the second season in a row.
Rangers adventure in Europe started in humble surroundings with a trip to the Victoria Stadium in Gibraltar to take on Lincoln Red Imps. It was as easy as you would expect for Rangers as the Red Imps were brushed aside 5-0.
Credit to Rangers however who certainly didn’t take this game lightly and produced some cracking goals starting with a trademark James Tavernier free kick and ending with a delightful chip over the ‘keeper by Alfredo Morelos.
The unique nature of the qualifiers this season being played in just a single leg meant there was no need for what would have been a rather pointless return leg at Ibrox. Rangers sights were now on the next game and a tricky tie away to Willem II.
A challenging fixture and a potential banana skin but certainly a winnable fixture too. Rangers were given an early scare when a rare error from Alan McGregor presented Vangelis Pavlidis with a chance from point-blank range. His shot, thankfully, rattled the bar and bounced away to safety. McGregor would make up for his mistake with two genuinely world class saves later in the game.
Rangers took control of the tie with two goals in three minutes. Clever play from Ryan Kent drew a foul in the box and Tavernier made no mistake with the resulting penalty. Willem II goalkeeper, Robbin Ruiter, then made an almost carbon copy mistake which presented Pavlidis with the chance to put his side in front earlier in the game. Kent took his opportunity however and Rangers were now two up and cruising.
Two goals in the second half from the centre backs, Connor Goldson and Filip Helander, turned what was a potential banana skin into a romp for Rangers. A very enjoyable 4-0 win set up a final qualifier at home to Galatasaray for a place in the group stages.
This would be the toughest tie of the three and it was clear to see that Galatasaray was another step up from Willem II. However, this match may be one of the most underrated results and performances of the season and possibly one of our most underrated European performances ever.
The first half saw few chances and there was an aurora of both teams trying to feel each other out and waiting for the other to show their hand. But Rangers were in control, looked comfortable on the ball and were the better team.
Seven minutes into the second half, we moved deservedly in front. A fantastic move where Morelos dummied a pass from Tavernier which found its way to Iannis Hagi. Hagi then played a perfectly waited through ball to Scott Arfield who finished a great move with a stunning finish.
Rangers capitalized on the first goal and doubled the lead shortly after. Tavernier rose highest in the six yard box to head home a lovely Borna Barisic cross, because where else would your right back be? Rangers were in full control and some of the football we were playing was dazzling.
Morelos should have made it three when he passed up on a great opportunity free at the back post after a fine delivery by Tavernier from a free kick. There was potential for drama late on when poor defending at a corner allowed Marcao to pull one back with three minutes to go.
There was, however, to be no further drama as Rangers saw out the remaining minutes with professionalism and ease. The result meant that Rangers had reached the group stages for the third year in a row and had now navigated 19 Europa League qualifiers under Gerrard without defeat.
On to the group then and Rangers were drawn with Benfica, Standard Liege and Lech Poznan. Much like the games against Willem II and Galatasary, this was a tricky draw but certianly one that we could qualify from. As a matter of fact, there was more of an expectency to make it out the group that wasn’t there in Gerrard’s first two seasons.
Benfica are usually Champions League regulars and would be favourites to top the group. There was little to fear about the other two teams however, Standard Liege and Lech Poznan were very much beatable. The expectations rose after a fine win on matchday one.
Rangers traveled to Liege to open the group and had the perfect start, going ahead in under 20 minutes as Tavernier managed to squeeze a penalty into the corner of the net and past the outstretched goalkeeper.
Standard Liege were by no means a bad team however and responded well to going behind. Striker Jackson Muleka twice saw headed efforts of his hit of the bar before the Rangers defence could get the ball to safety.
Rangers started the second half well and it was Morelos who passed up on two good opportunites to extend the lead.
Then just before the hour mark, the rain started to fall and it was heavy. Biblical levels of heavy. This very much worked in Rangers favour as the rain quickly ruined the pitch and it was near impossible to play and the game was somewhat petering out.
Speaking of near impossible, in the 93rd minute of the game as Leige pushed forward for an equaliser, Kemar Roofe won the ball just outside the Rangers box and had to fight to maintain possession. He took the ball past half of the Standard team while fighting against the awful conditions. He reached the halfway line and looked up to see Arnaud Bodart off his line before unleashing an incredible finish over the helpless ‘keepers head.
It was a goal that the manager described as the best he had ever seen in person and I am not going to argue with him. A stunning goal that capped off a great win for Rangers who made their intentions clear.
Next up, Lech Poznan at Ibrox. After losing their first game at home to Benfica, the Polish side came to Ibrox with the clear intention not to lose. It was a game at times that looked more like a domestic fixture as Poznan sat in and looked to hit Rangers on the break.
Not the prettiest of games or one worth digging out the highlights for a rewatch, but Morelos’ goal on the 68th minute after a superb Barisic cross was enough to get the three points. Two wins from two and looking good heading into the doubleheader with Benfica.
Two games that would end up annoyingly similar for Rangers. We travelled to Lisbon for the first and in an incredible opening 25 minutes, Rangers found themselves behind in under 60 seconds. A series of defensive errors resulting in a Goldson own goal. Not the start we were looking for and it could have potentially been a long night after going behind so early.
The turning point for Rangers came when Otamendi was sent off for the hosts after clipping Kent who was charging in on goal. It wasn’t long before Rangers took full advantage when Goncalves turned a low and hard Tavernier cross into his own net.
A minute later, Glen Kamara received the ball from Morelos and from the edge of the 18 yard box beat Vlachodimos at his near post. In the space of six minutes, Rangers went from a goal behind to a goal in front and with a man advantage!
It looked like Rangers had the game wrapped up early in the second half. Tavernier driving into the box again and another low ball to Morelos at the back post who had all the space and time in the world for an easy tap in to make it 3-1 Rangers.
Kent should have put the result beyond doubt when he was played through on goal by Ryan Jack. Kent’s shot hit the middle of the post and went out for a goal kick. Rangers would end up ruing that miss.
Benfica were a good side with some really classy players in their team, they were not out of it and the Rangers defending made their task all the easier. More uncharacteristically poor defending from Helander and poor decision making from McGregor gave Silva a tap in to an empty net.
Where Rangers had been so good in seeing out close games so far in Europe, it was made all too easy for Benfica. Gabriel Nunez was able to run between Goldson and Helander to score in the 91st minute to ensure the points would be shared.
A strange feeling at full time. I’m sure many Rangers fans would have happily taken a point away from Lisbon before the game and it was still a good result. However, having been comfortably ahead and playing against 10 men for the vast majority of the game it was understandable to feel a bit disappointed.
Rangers were still top of the group for the second Benfica game at Ibrox and in a really good position to qualify. It was Rangers who started quickly this time, another Barisic cross was met by the head of Roofe. Vlachodimos pulled off a fantastic save but Tavernier followed up only for his header to rebound off the bar before Arfield finally smashed the ball home.
Rangers saw out the first half comfortably and were then denied what looked like a certain penalty just after the hour mark when Jan Vertonghen handled a cross from Roofe. The Rangers striker would see justice shortly after as he produced yet another stunner in Europe to make it 2-0. An unstoppable shot from just outside the box finding the top corner of the net. The link-up play leading up to the goal between Joe Aribo and Barisic was none too shabby either.
Rangers looked comfortable until conceding a sloppy goal in the 78th minute that gave Benfica hope, the ball eventually finding the net after bouncing off Tavernier. Surely not again? Sadly, yes again. A fine strike from Pizzi two minutes later had the game level with just under 10 minutes to play.
This was more of a concern now as Benfica were in the ascendancy and Rangers were looking a bit leggy. The points were shared in the end however and it was that similar strange feeling of being disappointed with what was still a really good result. Rangers still sat top of the group on eight points and five points ahead of Standard Liege and Lech Poznan and who had taken wins off each other.
Rangers would remain at Ibrox for the penultimate game of the group against Standard. A draw and a Benfica win over Lech Poznan was all Rangers needed to go through. However, a win would take any doubts out of it and also leave Rangers in pole position to win the group.
Standard Liege are not a poor side by any stretch of the imagination and they weren’t coming over to Ibrox to simply roll over. This was shown to be the case when Maxime Lestienne gave the visitors the lead on the sixth minute. It wasn’t a great first half performance from Rangers, but a crazy last six minutes would see the two sides go in level after a further three goals.
A powerful Goldson header from a Barisic corner got Rangers back on level terms but the defence was immediately undone by another low cross that was finished by Duje Cop to put Standard back in front. It looked like Rangers would have to battle back in the second half until a Roofe shot was blocked by the hand of a diving Standard defender which allowed Tavernier to square matters again from the penalty spot.
In the second half, Standard started brightly but Arfield finished off a wonderful move just after the hour mark to put Rangers 3-2 up and in to the Last 32 of the Europa League for the second consecutive season. Rangers had done it with a game to spare. A tremendous achievement by Gerrard and Co. who now only had to match Benfica’s result on match day six to top the group.
As it turned out, Rangers handled the last game away to Lech Poznan with the ruthless professionalism that had got them into Europe after Christmas without barely breaking a sweat. Goals in either half from Cedric Itten and Hagi secured a 2-0 win and Rangers won the group by two points over Benfica.
When Rangers would return to European action in February, the league was all but wrapped up (more to come on that in part three) and there was a real excitement on just how far this team could go in the competition. In the Last 32 it would be Royal Antwerp who stood in the way of progression.
Not an easy draw but not the worst either. Rangers were rightly considered favourites and that turned out to be justified, after two quite incredible games. Rangers seemed to be making a habit of the dramatic ends to halves in Europe. A long ball over the top by Goldson almost put Roofe in, the Antwerp goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand seemed to have gathered the ball but spilled it. The ball eventually found its way to Aribo who curled a shot round the stranded goalie and into a gaping net.
A soft goal but an incredible header from the edge of the box by Felipe Avenatti right on 45 minutes looked to have things evenly balanced going into the second half. However, the softest of soft penalties was awarded to the home side as Steven Davis tickled the ankle of Lior Refaelov who from his reaction looked like his spirit was temporarily transported to 1963 Dallas. The brave Refaelov was, incredibly, able to brush himself down and take the resulting penalty, eight minutes into added on time, to put Antwerp 2-1 up at the break.
Rangers responded well in the second half and had a deserved penalty of their own. Morelos had his shirt pulled by Ritchie De Laet inside the six yard box. After consulting VAR, the referee pointed to the spot and it was a chance to equalise. Problem. Tavernier had went off in the first half after picking up an injury. He twice tried to battle on but collapsed on the turf and the management team weren’t prepared to let him try a third time and risk further injury.
It was up to Barisic to take the penalty and he got enough power on his shot to get it past the ‘keeper and level the game again. Things look to have swung in Rangers favour but the game remained level for only seven minutes. A deflected shot from Martin Hongla flew past McGregor into the far corner and the hosts had restored their lead.
As the game entered the final 10 minutes, Rangers were still pushing and the most likely to get the next goal but may have had to settle with taking two away goals back home. Then, a moment of genius. A lovely 1-2 between Morelos and Kent and some ankle braking magic from Kent allowed him to get an unbeatable shot away which found the top corner of the net. Just a beautiful goal and another one that has slipped under the radar a little bit with all the stunners we scored in 2020/21.
A 3-3 draw was a pretty good result to take back to Ibrox and would certainly leave us in a favourable position. It was Rangers who were to benefit from late drama this time however. A Kent shot was blocked in the box by the hand of Abdoulaye Seck, who received a second yellow card for his trouble. In the 96th minute, Barisic made no mistake from the spot again and Rangers were heading back to Ibrox with a 4-3 victory and in full control of the tie.
Rangers had a problem, however. The injury to Tavernier would mean he would miss the second leg and the natural replacement in Nathan Paterson was currently on the outs after break lockdown restrictions. The manager made the decision to start Leon Balogun at right back and while he is a good centre half he is certainly not what is needed at right back at this level of European competition.
However, Rangers got off to a flying start. Kent intercepted a back pass to the ‘keeper and cut the ball back to Morelos to finish into an empty net and make it 1-0 on the night. Antwerp now needed to score three unanswered goals to go through.
They got one back before half time when Jordan Lukaku turned Balogun inside out before firing the ball across the six yard box and Refaelov was on hand to finish. Still well in control, but Gerrard had to make a decision about the toiling Balogun. Patterson was given the nod as he came on for the second half, it took him only 19 seconds to justify the manager’s faith in him.
Played through on goal by Morelos, Patterson delivered a composed finish that you wouldn’t expect from someone so young and who been lambasted in the media for the last week. The relief and ecstasy on his face as he was swamped by his team mates was an emotional moment for all. I am fairly sure when Patterson hangs up his boots, this night will be seen as the making of him.
What would follow next was another stunning goal from Kent. A lovely turn by Hagi as he played in Morelos who ran past his man like he wasn’t there, he drove into the box and put the ball across for Kent to finish a stunning move. Annoyingly, Antwerp scored again but it was all for nought at this point. Two late penalties scored by Barisic and Itten rounded up another fine night for Rangers in Europe who would go into March undefeated in continental competition.
Heading into the Last 16, Rangers could rightly hold the title of being the team everyone else would rather avoid. The work that Gerrard has done to restore Rangers reputation on the continent cannot be understated and deserves an article of its own. There was, however, the chance that we would be drawn against a team who were just simply that bit better than us.
Sadly, that was the case in Slavia Prague. I don’t really want to go into detail about this one as the tie was overshadowed by the racist abuse received by Kamara. As much as Slavia were a good team and well deserved to go through. They are, quite frankly, a hideous club filled with disgusting people and supported by disgusting fans. This is a celebration and I don’t want to concentrate on the undeserving.
When Rangers were knocked out of Europe, we were already league champions.
Let’s talk more about that…