Rangers 2-1 Sparta Prague – Maintaining Momentum

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By Alistair Aird.

On the unforgettable run to Seville in 2022, Thursday nights were Rangers nights, and the hallmark of that run was the irresistible performances at Ibrox. The last Europa League defeat at the stadium came three managers ago, Rangers losing 2-0 to Lyon under Steven Gerrard in September 2021. Since then, Rangers have played Brondby, tonight’s opponents, Sparta Prague, Borussia Dortmund, Red Star Belgrade, Braga, RB Leipzig, and Real Betis at home. Their record reads: six wins, one draw.

That formidable record, coupled with the new lease of life the players seem to have under Philippe Clement, meant that expectation filled the chilly November night air around the stadium ahead of kick-off. Rangers were front and centre once again, the feel-good factor was back. Could the players harness that, keep the momentum going, and record a victory that would go a long way to securing a place in the knockout stages after Christmas?

The last time Sparta Prague played at Ibrox; Rangers secured the 2-0 win they needed to progress. And while a similar outcome tonight wouldn’t guarantee a place in the next round, with a home game against Aris next on the fixture list, you had to think that a Rangers win would make them favourites to progress.

Clement, whose Europa League record as a manager stood at seven wins, eight draws and seven defeats prior to this match, has had an immediate impact. He has taken a beleaguered bunch and given them belief once again. There is an identity about the team, a structure, and the winning mentality that served the club so well as they swatted aside all before them on the way to the Europa League Final is back.

After being forced to change his preferred ‘structure’ in Prague due to the absence of Borna Barisic and the ineligibility of Ridvan Yilamz, Clement’s starting XI was along expected lines. The only change to the team that broke Hearts on Sunday at Hampden was enforced. Leon Balogun, who had been impressive when he came into the side against Dundee and Hearts, wasn’t on the Europa League squad list, so his place alongside Connor Goldson went to Ben Davies.

John Lundstram would therefore once again be tasked with providing the driving force in midfield. The Englishman has been heavily criticised both this season and last, but his form since Clement came in has prompted some to say that the ‘Thursday’ John Lundstram is back.

That is once again reference to the matches played in the 2021/22 Europa League, matches in which Lundstram excelled. In the 14 matches he played, Lundstram averaged 56 touches of the ball per game and an 87% passing accuracy. He also hadn’t committed any errors that led to an opposition goal or shot at goal. He has been the fulcrum this season too, averaging 73.3 touches across the three games he has played, and boasting a passing accuracy of 86%. That’s an average of almost 50 accurate passes per game.

There would be some focus on the number 10 role too. On Sunday, Todd Cantwell had been substituted at half time, apparently for tactical reasons. Since then, fans forums had been debating whether Cantwell and Sam Lammers could play in the same team. They seemed to be patrolling the same areas of the pitch, but Clement clearly felt that both merited a place in the XI for this one. It would be interesting to see if anything had changed in the days that had passed since the semi-final.

There was a cacophony of boos before Abdallah Sima got the match underway. That was mainly down to the Sparta players forming a huddle, but there were also murmurings as the teams lined up with Rangers attacking the Copland Road end of the stadium. More often than not that’s not the case, but the break from tradition didn’t seem to perturb the home side too much as they started on the front foot.

The Cantwell-Lammers quandary was solved by deploying Cantwell, the only outfield player in blue sporting gloves, on the right and Lammers in the centre, although there would no doubt be interchanging throughout. And the duo combined to create the first real opening of the match after six minutes. Lammers fed the ball wide to Cantwell and his low cross from the right only just eluded a sliding Danilo.

But Sparta weren’t just here to spectate. They broke forward and forced a corner that was sclaffed clear unconvincingly by Sima. That seemed to create an edginess in the crowd and the white-hot Thursday night under the lights atmosphere hadn’t been witnessed yet. Moments later that would be duly restored when Rangers took the lead.

Some tenacious play from Tavernier won a corner. The captain’s first delivery was cleared, but when the ball made its way back to him, he executed a delicious cross into the box. That caused some consternation before the ball made its way back to the opposition goalkeeper, Peter Vindhal. But as Sparta tried to play out from the back, Danilo pressed and pounced on a wayward pass from James Gomez. He then stroked it beautifully into the net with his left foot. Cue a chorus or ten of the Danilo ditty that has been reverberating around the stands since the Brazilian has come back from his fractured cheekbone. He has been a huge part of the transformation under Clement.

Rangers were hungry for more, and Cantwell nearly provided the necessary sustenance when he executed a scissors kit that was clawed away by Vindhal. But he wouldn’t be foiled for long. Danilo was involved again, spraying the ball wide and Cantwell did the rest, checking inside on to his left foot and bending a low drive into the far corner.

The goal was followed by an impromptu gathering of the Sparta players in the centre circle. The two goals had rattled the visitors and ripped their gameplan asunder. As for Ibrox, it was once again bubbling, a cauldron of noise. It’s just different as someone once said.

But someone wasn’t content. As the players and fans celebrated Cantwell’s goal, Clement was growling and pacing. He clearly didn’t want his players to rest on their laurels, he wanted more. For him, the job was far from done. And he nearly got the third goal he was looking for after 28 minutes. Sima sped down the left, and when his cross was half-cleared, Danilo shot the ball against the outside of the post. Sparta looked shattered and you felt that the jugular was exposed, and Rangers had a chance to go for it.

Rangers were relentless. The press was high, the intensity too. Sparta were being forced into making elementary errors because of that. Clement has said he didn’t have a magic wand, but he must have something as this Rangers team, eight of whom started Michael Beale’s last match in charge, were unrecognisable. From pale and pathetic to vim and vigour inside six games, with incremental improvements made week by week.

Cantwell, perhaps perturbed by his withdrawal on Sunday, was prominent, and after another surge forward after 38 minutes, he was brought crashing to the turf. That earned the hapless Gomez a booking and offered Tavernier an opportunity for another goal. He set his sights, but his free-kick curled wide of Vindhal’s right-hand post. The Sparta goalkeeper then thwarted Cantwell with an outstretched foot.

Remarkably given that the home side led by two goals, Sparta had had more of the ball – 55% possession compared to 45% and 227 passes against 185 – but Rangers had hit the target with six of their nine attempts at goal and won 28 of the 51 duels. Momentum was indeed being maintained.

Sparta made a couple of changes at the interval. Unsurprisingly, the luckless Gomez, culpable for the first goal and on a yellow card, was one of them. Clement sent out the same XI, but Cyriel Dessers, Tom Lawrence and Ross McCausland were sent out to warm up. Given the effort that players had expended in the first 45 minutes, substitutions at some point were inevitable.

The pace of the game slowed noticeably at the start of the second half. But Rangers burst to life again after 56 minutes. Cantwell spooned the ball forward into the path of Danilo and his cross was blocked for a corner. Tavernier’s delivery didn’t ask any questions of the Sparta rearguard, but you felt that a head of steam was building again.

But that could have been doused with a moment of slackness just after the hour. Tavernier gave the ball away recklessly and Sparta almost made him pay. They sprang forward, but the header from Qazim Laci fell wide of the largely untroubled Butland’s goal. It was, nonetheless, a warning for Rangers. There was no room for any complacency.

Clement made his first change of the evening after 68 minutes. Todd Cantwell had been irresistible at times, but his race was now run. Cantwell maintained his 100% passing accuracy – 18/18 – won five of eight ground duels and made one key pass. His goal was beautifully executed too. He was replaced by Ross McCausland.

McCausland’s first touch was almost a decisive one. After 72 minutes, he played a delicious through ball into the path of Danilo, but perhaps a little fatigued, the Brazilian didn’t have the legs to get into a position to shoot for goal. The Northern Irish youngster then tested Vindhal with a fizzing low shot. There is no doubt he is full of promise and hopefully more minutes will come his way as the season progresses.

As the clock ticked on to 75 minutes, the roar of the crowd once again reached a crescendo, but it was dampened momentarily when Sparta pulled a goal back. Preciado picked out Harslin and it looked like it was game on. Or was it?

Rangers immediately went to the other end, and Danilo looked to have grabbed his second of the night with another composed finish. But a VAR check was called for and there was an air of inevitability when the referee came across to the monitor. The goal was disallowed. Danilo had apparently impeded his marker.

After 85 minutes, Clement made a double change. Off trotted Danilo and Sima, on came Dessers and Lawrence. The latter has had a wretched time with injury but had enjoyed a fine cameo on Sunday at Hampden. He’s another who will be an asset this season if he can stay fit.

Within a minute of the changes, Sparta were almost on level terms. Haraslin curled in a long-range shot, but Butland threw himself across his goal to palm the ball away. Redundant for most of the night, Butland once again showed that he has those key attributes of focus and concentration that a Rangers goalkeeper needs. He has been a magnificent addition to the player pool, on and off the park.

Rangers looked to be hanging on to their slender advantage at this point. Six minutes of additional time were indicated by the fourth official shortly after McCausland passed up a good chance to put the game to bed, wildly firing high over the crossbar.

Sam Lammers picked up a yellow card for a mistimed sliding challenge and suddenly the Sparta fans sensed their team had a chance to snatch a draw. But Jack Butland rose majestically to clutch a corner kick, another illustration that as well as being an accomplished shot stopper, he commands his penalty area with authority too.

Jose Ciefuentes replaced Lammers as we made our way into the sixth minute of added time. Fortunately, the ball was at the right end of the park, Lawrence doing superbly to win a free-kick which was followed by the concession of a corner kick by the visitors.

As foil flags fluttered in the Broomloan Stand, the home fans cranked up the volume to shout their heroes home. EIGHT minutes had now been added, but the game ended moments after Sparta’s final flurry had been ended abruptly by the assistant referee’s flag.

Admittedly, the second half hadn’t been pretty at times, but Rangers had purred beautifully in the opening 45 minutes. Barring a series of unlikely results, Clement should lead his side into the knockout rounds. If results go Rangers’ way, they may well progress into the last 16 too, thus avoiding teams dropping down from the Champions League.

It’s a far cry from a few weeks ago. Momentum has been maintained and the opportunity to follow on to Dublin remains a very real possibility.

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