By Colin MacDuff
A historic night for Rangers as the woman’s played their first ever home Champions League tie, even more special with Ibrox as the arena. A crowd of 3,522 were spread across the Broomloan and Sandy Jardine front tiers, but the ever-vibrant Union Bears chants echoing round the terraces from behind the goal it felt a much larger crowd.
The first 15 minutes saw both sides feel their way into the game, a cagey approach as either side tried to suss out their opponent. As the first half progressed, we began to see the formation of how Rangers would attack, full backs Docherty and McLaughlin linking up with Danielsson and Hay respectively to dominate the wide areas and deliver danger into the visitor’s box. Off the ball, the on-form Kayla McCoy led the press and support alternated from Kerr and McLean from midfield to force Benfica to play the ball up field.
The Portuguese side, much more comfortable switching from the wide areas to playing direct through the middle and forcing the Rangers side to stay switched on, had the first real effort of the game. Cloe Lacasse on the Benfica left wing looked the biggest threat on the pitch all night, and on this occasion used her pace and close control to reach the by-line past Rachel McLaughlan and cut back for the oncoming da Silva Cintra who clashes her shot off the bar on the 19th minute.
This, coupled with the increasing encouragement from the Broomloan, injected some urgency into Rangers who began to move the ball with more intensity and purpose and for a short spell dominated the midfield area. On the 25th minute it paid off, with the ball finding it’s way to the right-hand side and Brogan Hay finding a yard on her defender to deliver an inch perfect cross which was met by the on-coming McCoy who heads home to put Rangers in the lead, a fine finish to match the cross.
The next 10 minutes saw both teams work their way into the other’s box, knowing how pivotal the second goal would be either way, but Benfica looked the more dangerous with Lacasse again creating attack after attack on the left-hand side, ranging from shots from distance, deep crosses or using her burst of pace to work the ball into the box. She eventually finds Striker Ana Vitoria on the 36th minute with a ball to feet who manages to turn McLaughlin at the edge of the box and slot it past Victoria Esson. Aside from a couple of Rangers corners, this saw the last of the real action of the first half.
As the second half started Rangers quickly had to adapt to increased pressure from Benfica, notably pressing higher and in numbers from the kick off, and were almost punished for not adapting quick enough as stand in centre back Tessel Middag’s loose ball into midfield is picked up by Benfica’s Andreia Norton who forces a stretched save from Esson at her bottom right hand corner. Benfica and Ana Vitoria’s 2nd eventually came on the 56th minute, with the visitors dominating the ball and forcing Rangers into a deep block, Norton beats Brogan Hay at the edge of the and finds the Benfica No. 10 at the back post with a chipped cross and the striker cuts back on to her left and sends the ball into the top corner with the second touch.
Rangers responded almost instantly, however, with captain Nicola Docherty taking the ball at left back from kick off and finding Kayla McCoy with a perfectly weighted through ball and the Jamaican international grabs her brace with a cool finish by Rute Costa to send the Broomloan and Sandy Jardine front tiers wild again. McCoy’s 6th and Rangers 44th of the seasons was a clear indication, despite the siege of attack, of how dangerous Malky Thomson’s side can be.
Benfica’s dominance of the ball continued, however and Rangers plan was quickly updated to focus on countering with energy and purpose. The 15 minutes following the equaliser saw Danielsson, Hay, MacLean and McCoy replaced by Arnot, Orschmann, Howat and Watson respectively. A strong blend of experience and youth, but all bringing fresh legs to a side adjusting to the wider pitch at Ibrox and Rangers were able to press further into Benfica’s territory once more and play more of their football higher up the pitch.
While Benfica continued to enjoy more possession and create more opportunities on goal, Rangers looked dangerous when breaking and it seemed a fair tie as full time grew nearer. A Benfica corner on the 78th minute would put the Portuguese back in front though with more than a shade of fortune. Martinez, who had a solid display at the heart of defence, sliced her clearance which looped back towards the Rangers goal and Victoria Esson’s slight fumble saw the goal move dangerously close to crossing the line. The replays were inconclusive, but the referee and assistant called it allowed it as the 5th goal of the game.
Malky Thomson and Nicola Docherty both spoke to the press afterwards of the belief within the squad that they’re firmly in this tie, and how on another night they might be going to Portugal level. Thomson recognised the step up in opposition on the night but took great encouragement from the intensity his team started with and how clinical McCoy was in front of goal. As previously mentioned, 44 goals from 8 games is a sign of how this rangers side intend to achieve their ambitions and you’d fully expect them take the game to Benfica in the return leg.