Rangers overcome wobbly axis of error as Euro specialists keep £40m dream alive - Keith Jackson's big match verdict

If there’s one thing we should have learned about watching Rangers in Europe over these last 12 months then it’s surely to expect them to do things the hard way.

But, even so, they took their fans to the brink of a nervous breakdown in this tie before storming to the kind of stunning home win which became such a trademark throughout last season’s epic Europa League run to Seville. Having capitulated so woefully in Belgium last week, their Champions League hopes were hanging by a thread until James Tavernier netted a late first-half penalty to rekindle an old flame inside Ibrox.

When Antonio Colak poached a second just shy of the hour the scene was set for another one of those rousing Euro nights. And Malik Tillman obliged by heading home a third goal and sparing a full house the agony of 30 more minutes of insufferable anxiety. All in all, then, it was the perfect response and result. Even if the nature of the performance had Giovanni van Bronckhorst scratching his head at times in the end all that mattered was that his players had dug themselves out of a £40million hole.

His team selection smacked of a manager still searching for his strongest XI. And perhaps even one struggling to see the woods for the trees. Saturday’s man of the match, Steve Davis, dropped back to the bench to make way for Scott Arfield. New boys Tom Lawrence, Tillman and Colak were all thrown in from the start with Ryan Kent returned from the treatment room in time to take his place on the left wing – while Alfredo Morelos had to settle for a seat on the bench.

And, perhaps most concerning of all, the wobbly axis of errors between James Sands and Borna Barisic – which was so exposed during the first leg – was reinstated on the left side of the Dutchman’s back four. Plenty then for the Rangers fans to chew nervously on as they made their way back home for a night under the lights, having relished this midweek routine last season.

The Belgians, for their part, went with the same XI which turned Rangers over so ruthlessly in the first leg. No tinkering required. And yet this one began in much the same way as last week’s tie, with Rangers piling forward and the Belgians defending deep and in numbers.

When they did break out for the first time the alert Sands did superbly well to snuff out Dante Vanzeir’s forward burst. The rest of the time, though, it was one way traffic. Tillman missed the first big chance when he got on the end of a driven Lawrence corner but headed over the top. In eight minutes, Colak came even closer as he stooped to connect with a free-kick from Tavernier only for his effort to clear the bar.

But these early exchanges were encouraging nonetheless with Kent’s darting presence in particular causing serious anxiety in Union’s defence. And as the pressure mounted so the volume began to rise. All Rangers needed now was a goal to take the roof off the old place.

But just when the stage seemed perfectly set, the home side began to stutter and fluff their lines. As the early attacks dried up, the tension took hold and when Sands needlessly caused the concession of a corner, which was headed just wide by Siebe van der Heyden, the mood turned darker still.

Colak almost sparked the place back to life in 27 minutes when he got his head on a Lawrence delivery but Union keeper Anthony Moris pulled off a fabulous one-handed stop to turn the Croat’s effort over the top. It was starting to shape up as a long night as the Belgians manned the barricades. Lawrence tried his luck after the half hour but his shot from distance curled around the outside of Moris’ left-hand post.

Sands was booked soon after for a blatant bodycheck on Lazare Amani and then, just to compound matters, Tillman came within an inch or two of gifting the Belgians a penalty when he wiped out a white shirt on the edge of the box. But then, just as Rangers looked set to head inside no further forward but in even more desperate trouble, from nowhere they were awarded a penalty in the dying seconds of the half.

There seemed little danger as Barisic hurled a hopeful cross into the box but van der Heyden was spooked into throwing out his left arm in any case and he left the ref with no choice but to point to the spot. Up stepped Tavernier – of course he did – to slot in off the keeper’s left-hand post.

And yet Rangers came out for the second half tripping up over their own mistakes with Sands and Connor Goldson taking it in turns to give possession away. With each needless error more momentum was being tossed away until it felt like Rangers were right back at square one.

But the more Kent became involved, the more Rangers began to spark and, as the Belgians began to creak, the excellent Lawrence came striding forward to set up the big breakthrough moment with a probe towards Tavernier at the back post.

The skipper cushioned a cut back towards the spot, Arfield met it first time and even though his shot was blocked by Moris, Colak reacted first to head home from two yards.

With a familiar bedlam erupting all around, for the first time in this tie, it felt as if Rangers were finally back in their European stride. Then a huge scare when Sands slid into a perfectly-timed tackle on Vanzeir only for the ref to award a free-kick and dig into his pocket to dig out a second yellow card.

It was only down to the intervention of his linesman that the decision was correctly overturned.

In 78 minutes, Barisic hung up another deep cross and Tillman towered above the flapping Moris to head into an empty net.

And when Amani was sent off for a second yellow this improbable mission was finally complete.


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