By Alistair Aird
It’s not often that Ibrox hosts a European quarter final tie. Just 11 times since European competition came into existence had Rangers played in the last eight on their home ground. They had tasted defeat in just one of those matches – the first one back in 1960 – and had only failed to score in three of them. The latter was one statistic the current squad couldn’t afford to emulate. Failure to score in this one would abruptly terminate the European adventure.
The Rangers XI showed two changes from the side that beat St Mirren convincingly at the weekend. Filip Helander, out for the season but ineligible in any case for Europe, was replaced by Calvin Bassey, and Ryan Jack came back in to stiffen up the midfield. Fashion Sakala dropped down to the bench.
There was a start too for Aaron Ramsey. Many were bewildered that he wasn’t called upon in Portugal, but with 79 appearances under his belt at this level, his guile and experience would be vital for Rangers.
The starting XI named by Carlos Carvahal was a mixture of youth and experience. In the forward areas he called upon Ruiz (22) and Gomes (18) while in midfield their number 88, Andre Costa, was the elder statesman at 34. There were a couple of 22-year-olds in their backline too, the Brazilian, Fabiano, and the Portuguese, David Carmo. It would be interesting to see how they dealt with the Ibrox cauldron when the noise levels got cranked up.
The personnel chosen by van Bronckhorst afforded him the tactical flexibility we have seen in recent Europa League ties. The favoured 4-2-3-1 could easily morph into 3-5-2 or 4-1-4-1. Gio had options and opportunities, and considering recent criticism, this was the time for him and his team to silence the dissenting voices.
One thing that certainly wasn’t silent was the voices of the sell-out crowd. They were raucous and rowdy as the stands reverberated while they sang their hymns and anthems in the lead up to kick off. The players, deep in the bowels of the stadium making their final preparations, should have been energised by what they heard. If they hadn’t picked up the noise in the dressing room, then the welcome they received when they took to the field was one to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. It was breath-taking. The Rangers fans were ready, the question that needed a definitive answer was were the players?
Kemar Roofe got the match underway, with Rangers attacking the Broomloan Road end of the ground. A quick glance showed that Rangers were set up in a 4-2-3-1, with Ramsey on the right of the three and Joe Aribo undertaking the number 10 role.
The Nigerian has been criticised since his return from the African Cup of Nations. He has been a shadow of the player that looked set to sweep the boards when it came to the annual Player of the Year awards, but on this occasion, he rediscovered his best form. And he was instrumental when Rangers levelled the tie after only two minutes.
Ramsey found Lundstram in the heart of the pitch. The ball made its way out to Barisic, and his inviting cross was flicked towards goal by Aribo. James Tavernier was alert to the situation, and the captain slid in at the back post to shoot across Matheus and into the far corner. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any louder inside Ibrox, the Rangers fans defied the decibel levels once again. Ibrox was bouncing.
The ball was in the net again three minutes later, but on this occasion the explosion of noise was short-lived. Barisic, rejuvenated and back to his old self, curled in another sumptuous cross that was tailor-made for Kemar Roofe to head home inside the six-yard box. But the French referee, Monsieur Letexier, consulted VAR and noticed that the ball had struck Barisic’s hand prior to him delivering his cross.
Nonetheless, it had been a magnificent start from Rangers. It was reminiscent of the opening minutes against Celtic, fast paced, in the opponents faces, not allowing them time to settle. It had to be hoped that that approach was sustained and not curtailed as it had been a couple of weeks earlier.
Aribo certainly looked in the mood, playing a superb curling ball from the left that almost picked out Tavernier. He then popped up on the right wing and his low cross was poked wide by Roofe.
Braga did start getting a hold of the ball after the whirlwind start, but Rangers were just as good out of possession as they were in it. The players were working hard and were compact. This was typified by John Lundstram in particular. The Englishman turned in another industrious performance at this level. He was calm, cool and composed, always making himself available for a pass.
The visitors tightened up defensively too, and they were not affording Rangers as much room as they had done. Rangers did carve out a couple of decent openings, though, and Ramsey and Kent should probably have done better with the opportunities they were presented with.
In the blink of an eye the game had reached the half-hour mark, and at that point Rangers had a glorious chance to edge ahead in the tie. Barisic won a corner on the left. Tavernier took it, and when Aribo flicked the ball to the back post, Roofe got a shot in with his right foot, but it hit the underside of the crossbar. And minutes later, there was almost a carbon copy. Following a wonderful burst of pace from Kent, he dug out a cross that was headed wide for a corner. Tavernier delivered, Aribo flicked on again at the front post, but no one was there to turn it in at the far post.
This was the start of another good spell for Rangers. After 37 minutes, the ball broke to Roofe outside the box, but he dragged his left foot shot wide. Kent was then picked out but couldn’t steer his header beyond Matheus. And a matter of minutes later, Rangers had the advantage, not just in the tie but numerically too.
Calvin Bassey played a sumptuous ball to release Roofe. He homed in on goal but was barged in the back by Tormena. There was no debate or even a requirement for VAR. The referee had no hesitation. Penalty to Rangers and a red card for Tormena. While 48,894 supporters held their breath, Tavernier remained cool, calm, and collected. His shot went straight down the middle, and Rangers had turned the tie around. Once again, the captain had more than played his part. He led by example from the off and his two goals took his tally in this season’s Europa League to six.
Rangers were outclassing Braga, and as Simply the Best boomed out the sound system as the team came back out, the players stood a mere 45 minutes away from a first European semi-final since 2008.
Carlos Carvahal was the first manager to make a change for Braga, taking off Horta and bringing on Moura. But it did little to stem the tide. Roofe almost carved out an open immediately but was crowded out, and as van Bronckhorst showed his exasperation when an attack broke down, Joe Aribo broke into a shooting position but bent his left foot shot wide of goal. Lundstram then fired wastefully and wildly wide when a Barisic cross was cleared into his path.
Around 10 minutes after the restart, the first choruses of ‘Gio, Gio’ could be heard emanating from the stands. The much-maligned manager had proven his doubters wrong thus far with his gameplan, and there seemed no suggestion at this stage that Braga would find a way back into the match.
The woodwork denied Rangers again after 62 minutes. Bassey burst forward and was fouled on the left wing. Tavernier’s free-kick went all the way through to Lundstram. He teed up Goldson, but his shot hits the outside of the post.
A couple of minutes later another brilliant early delivery from Barisic found Ramsey, but his header went over the bar. The Welshman now looked to be playing as the 10, and he had an opportunity to add to the six Europa League goals he scored with Arsenal when he worked a one-two with Lundstram. Ramsey went for goal and found the side netting. Perhaps a cutback into the heart of the box would have been a better option on this occasion.
The traffic continued to flow in one direction, and with 20 minutes to go, Roofe had the ball in the net after he dinked it over Matheus. Alas, the roars were silenced by the assistant referee’s flag, Roofe had strayed into an offside position.
Suddenly, the play swung to the other end and Goldson went down after an aerial challenge. As he received treatment, there was a chance to refuel for the players ahead of one last push. They were less than 20 minutes away from the semi-final.
Rangers were maintaining their tempo in and out of possession, and they had another goal ruled out when Ramsey bundled the ball into the net. The flag was raised again, and that would be Ramsey’s last involvement as he and Ryan Jack were replaced by Scott Wright and Glen Kamara shortly afterwards. It was ‘like for like’, with Kamara alongside Lundstram, Wright on the right and Aribo moving back to ‘10’ position.
But within minutes of the substitution, Braga were on level terms when the scored from what was their first corner. The corner came about because of some slack play from Rangers, but the delivery was excellent and Carmo rose above Roofe and Goldson to bullet the ball into the net.
The goal changed the dynamics of the game. Suddenly, Rangers lost their rhythm, and a nervous tension filled the air. Rangers were ropey, with passes misplaced and possession surrendered cheaply. In the end, there was probably some relief when the referee ended the 90 minutes as it gave the Rangers players a chance to regroup ahead of extra-time.
The home side would enter that additional half hour without Barisic who was taken off because of cramp. Leon Balogun came on and the home fans were roused again as they looked for one of their heroes to make their mark as Rangers tried to win the tie all over again.
However, the early minutes of extra-time were marked out by stagnant play from Rangers. It lacked the fluidity we had witnessed until the Braga goal, and there was still a degree of impatience in the stands.
It was now a cagey affair, with neither team looking to over-commit. However, out of nothing after 101 minutes, Rangers scored. The ball was worked out to Kamara on the right and when his pass found Aribo, Joe did what Joe had been doing regularly before the winter break, he created a goal. His cutback was perfect for Roofe and when his right foot shot hit the net, it was bedlam. Could the Rangers players draw on the energy from the stands and finish the job?
Their quest was helped by a moment of madness from the mask-wearing Medeiros. He caught Balogun with a late challenge that merited a yellow card, but when he squared up to the referee, he earned another yellow and his side were now down to nine men for the final 15 minutes.
Scott Arfield and Fashion Sakala came on for Roofe and Aribo, and the former should have emphatically sealed the deal, but instead he passed up two glaring goalscoring opportunities. For the first he was teed up by Kent but shot wide, and he then somehow hit the crossbar when faced with a gaping goal after superb build up play involving Wright and Sakala.
Arfield’s profligacy could have been costly, but the verve and vigour was back in Rangers’ play. There was no way back for beleaguered Braga as the Rangers players treated the ball as a precious commodity that must be retained. They comfortably saw out the remaining minutes and Rangers WERE IN THE SEMI-FINALS OF THE EUROPA LEAGUE!
It was another remarkable night under the lights, and we will now have one more to look forward to against RB Leipzig in May. That will be another tough hurdle to clear but given the heavyweights that we have knocked out the competition, we now have a genuine chance to win the trophy, particularly if we keep up the intensity and relentlessness we showed against Braga.
We are all now daring to dream of sunny Seville and a date with destiny as the quest for Europa League glory continues.