By Alistair Aird
Thursday 16 September 2021
Rangers succumbed to their first-ever home defeat in the Europa League group stages, going down 2-0 against Lyon at Ibrox. A superb strike by the Cameroonian forward, Karl Toko Ekambi and an own goal from James Tavernier made the difference on a night where the home side didn’t reach the levels they have done in previous Europa League campaigns, yet they still competed with their French opponents, particularly in the first half.
Steven Gerrard rung the changes following the weekend win over St Johnstone. There was a recall for Allan McGregor in goal and Connor Goldson was back at the heart of the back four, replacing the injured Filip Helander. Borna Barisic came in for Calvin Bassey at left back and there were changes middle to front too, with John Lundstram relacing Kemar Roofe. That saw Joe Aribo pushed into a more advanced position than he has played of late, with Lundstram joining the evergreen Steven Davis and Glen Kamara in midfield.
After emerging from the tunnel to a raucous reception from the home supporters, Rangers started the game on the front foot. Barely a minute had elapsed before Alfredo Morelos narrowly missed out when tried to latch on to a long ball out of defence.
Lyon, seventh in Ligue 1 after recovering from a poor start with two successive wins, were rattled, with the high press from Rangers giving their defenders very little time to settle. That gave rise to several loose passes from the French side when their players were under little or no pressure.
The first attempt at goal fell to Davis after six minutes. Barisic found Kent, and when the latter’s cross was cleared to edge of box, the crowd rose in anticipation as the ball fell invitingly for Davis. Unfortunately, he shot rashly, and his effort flew well wide of the target.
Rangers continued to probe and a long-range attempt from Kent was blocked shortly before Goldson went down and required treatment. That gave Michael Beale, Steven Gerrard and Tom Culshaw the opportunity to pass instruction to Aribo and Barisic, and the Croat almost created an opening for Morelos in the 15th minute. The move started with a superb crossfield pass from Goldson. Barisic controlled the ball on his chest and his low cross into the area was aimed towards Morelos. Any possible threat was snuffed out by the Lyon goalkeeper, Anthony Lopes, who dived to smother the ball.
The spell of pressure cranked up the noise levels in the stadium, but Lyon bounced back and after Davis was penalised for foul on Bruno Guimaraes, Emerson wastefully struck the free-kick against the wall. And shortly afterwards Les Gonesbroke clear and it took a vital interception from Barisic to thwart their attacking intent.
But although denied on that occasion, the visitors hit the front after 23 minutes. Ryan Kent carelessly gave the ball away in the centre of the pitch and he was duly punished as Ekambi strode forward and fired a stunning shot beyond McGregor. It was a superb effort from long range, and the Lyon number 7 was a threat to the Rangers rear-guard throughout the match.
Rangers responded well to the setback of losing a goal. After 26 minutes a dangerous cross from Tavernier was punched clear by Lopes, and there was a shout for a penalty a minute later when Lundstram went down in the box. The Swedish referee, Andreas Ekberg, wasn’t interested in what were in fairness, half-hearted appeals.
Joe Aribo, who had a quiet night by his standards, almost restored parity just short of the half hour mark. A long ball forward was misjudged by Jerome Boateng – one of the few mistakes the former Bayern Munich defender made in the match – and when Kent played in Aribo on the right, the Nigerian cut onto his left foot and his shot was parried by Lopes.
This was the start of a good spell for Rangers. After fine play from Kent to win the ball on the left, Morelos teed up Lundstram who tugged his left foot shot just wide of the far post. That got the crowd going, although the supporters’ hearts were in their mouths when Houssem Aouar moved clear on the Rangers left. His cut back found Malo Gusto who shot across McGregor’s goal and wide of the far post.
It was then that Rangers created what would be arguably their most clear-cut chance of the game. Morelos picked the ball up, turned and played it wide for Barisic. His low ball found Kent who made space for a right foot shot that brought the best out of Lopes, the Lyon goalkeeper diving low to his left to parry the ball to safety.
That was the last real action of a relatively even first half. There wasn’t much wrong with the Rangers performance. They had been punished for some sloppiness in midfield but there had been some promising signs going forward. Allan McGregor had had little to do, and this was probably one his quietest European nights in what was his 95th appearance at this level. Morelos, so often the talisman in the Europa League, had had a frustrating first 45 minutes. He had been well policed by the experienced Boateng and Jason Denayer, both of whom had given him very little opportunity to threaten the goalkeeper.
With rain pouring from the night sky in Glasgow, the atmosphere built to a crescendo again as the teams emerged for the second half under the lights at Ibrox. Gerrard elected not to make any changes even though he had a pretty strong bench to choose from if and when any alterations were required.
A minute after the restart, the goalscorer, Ekambi, enraged the crowd when he returned the ball to Rangers after a break in play. Following a commanding clearing header from Goldson, Ekambi had gone down, and Tavernier put the ball out to allow the Lyon forward to receive treatment. None was required, and Ekambi then drew boos from the home fans when he returned the ball by playing it out for a throw-in deep in the Rangers half. He then broke forward and shot from range, a deflection takes the ball over the bar for a corner.
The action was frantic at this stage, and Rangers were almost in on goal as a long ball saw Lopes race from his line to clear as Kamara moved in to close him down.
But Lyon were starting to exert some pressure, forcing a series of corners, and they doubled their lead after 54 minutes. It was another poor goal for Rangers to concede. Kent was once again caught in possession, and despite a fine double save from McGregor, the ball broke to Slimani and although his shot was cleared by Goldson, the ball spun off Tavernier and into the net.
The home side now had a mountain to climb, but memories were still fresh of a recent comeback from a similar deficit, so the crowd were soon back in full voice. But there would be no Braga-esque performance on this occasion. Although Gerrard made a statement of attacking intent when he introduced the energetic Scott Wright for Steven Davis, Lyon expertly took the sting out of the game and limited Rangers to very few opportunities to score.
The best of those chances fell to James Tavernier just after the hour mark. A foul on Wright gave Rangers a free kick in a promising position. Barisic and Tavernier stood over the ball, but it was the skipper who stepped forward to curl in a great effort that hit the outside of the post. Other than that the closest Rangers came to scoring was a later Leon Balogun header from a Tavernier free-kick that flew over the crossbar.
There was a further blow for Rangers when Barisic released Kent down the left. The Englishman scampered after the ball but appeared to pull up with what looked like a pulled hamstring. He was replaced by Kemar Roofe, and when questioned on the extent of the injury after the game, Gerrard said it was too early to tell. Although Kent has perhaps not had the best of starts to the season, his attacking thrusts will be missed if he is sidelined for a period of time.
Lyon also made a change at this stage and the introduction of the former Liverpool midfielder, Xherdan Shaqiri was another illustration of how formidable a side Lyon were. The Swiss replaced the scorer of the first goal, Ekambi, a man who may not have been in the starting XI had Moussa Dembele been passed fit to play.
Rangers were huffing and puffing at this stage of the game, and the introduction of Fashion Sakala for Joe Aribo certainly suggested that Gerrard felt his side were still in with a chance of getting something from the game. But despite the attacking power that his side now possessed, very little was created in the way of clear chances and the second half performance was summed up when Sakala’s wild long-range shot flew high and wide. Thereafter the French side managed the remaining minutes superbly and claimed three points on Matchday 1.
On reflection, Steven Gerrard will be frustrated by the way both goals were conceded – elementary mistakes were made, and they are clinically punished by teams like Lyon at this level – and he may also reflect on the lack of energy and any real pace in Rangers’ play, particularly in the second half. But he can take some positives from the game. Lyon are a superb side – up there with the toughest Gerrard reckons he has faced in his half century of European games as Rangers’ manager – and Rangers matched them at times. The no-score draw in the game between Sparta Prague and Brondby means that there is still all to play for in Group A as Rangers look to maintain their excellent recent record in the Europa League.