By Alistair Aird
Thursday night football is fast becoming a fixture in the Rangers fixture list. For the third successive season, they were among the last 16 competitors in the Europa League, and a tie against Crevena Zvezda (Red Star Belgrade) presented them with a realistic opportunity of making it through to the quarter-finals. Ibrox was therefore in an expectant mood.
There weren’t many surprises in terms of personnel in the Rangers starting XI. Eyebrows may have been raised at the omission of Scott Arfield and the inclusion of three defensive midfielders, but the main thing that intrigued everyone with a royal blue hue was what formation Rangers would line up in. There was scope for the tried and tested 4-2-3-1, but also opportunities for 4-3-3 or maybe even 4-1-4-1. And the 3-5-2 that had brought so much success in the second half against Dortmund when John Lundstram joined Connor Goldson and Leon Balogun in a back three looked to be available too.
In the end, such was the fluidity in Rangers’ formation throughout the 90 minutes that all of the above were probably utilised at one point. But the home side started in a 4-2-3-1, with Glenn Kamara deployed in a number 10 role that not many supporters would have expected to see him in
In terms of the visitors, they were captained by Canadian international goalkeeper Milan Borjan and coach Dejan Stankovic also called upon the experience of Aleksandar Dragovic and Milan Rodic in defence. Although 31 and 30 respectively, between them they had 166 appearances in European competition, 106 for Dragovic and 60 for Rodic. In midfield, the Gabonese number eight Guelor Kanaga would pose a threat and provide supply for the dynamic attacking duo of Katai and Omoijuanfo.
Pumping up the volume goes with the territory on nights under the lights at Ibrox, and this one was no different. The teams, led by the Dutch officials, took to the field with the Europa League blaring, but it was pretty much drowned out by cries of ‘No Surrender’ from the home supporters. The little pocket of Red Star fans tried to make their voices heard too.
Bar Allan McGregor, who looked magnificent in mandarin, Rangers were top to toe in blue. Red Star, meanwhile, were hoping to be stars in red and white stripes. And they almost got off to the perfect start. After only a couple of minutes, they broke forward and Ivanic played the ball to Aleksandar Katai. He curled a sumptuous shot into the net, but the assistant referee on the Bill Struth Main Stand side had his flag up for offside. Katai had strayed a fraction offside, and the decision was confirmed by VAR.
That was part of a nervy start for Rangers but after seven minutes, Jack broke into a shooting position and fired wide of the goalkeeper’s left-hand post. But just prior to Jack receiving the ball, Kent felt he had been fouled inside the box by Srnic. The noise level rose in anticipation as referee Serdar Gözübüyük consulted with VAR, and there was a massive roar when the penalty kick was given. Tavernier took it and showed nerves of steel to fire the ball into the top right-hand corner. It was the Rangers captain’s twelfth goal in Europe on what was his fifty-eighth appearance at this level.
The stadium was literally bouncing, but Red Star looked to have levelled with their next attack. Calvin Bassey failed to cut out a ball forward towards Katai, and when McGregor allowed the ball to spill out of his grasp, the Serbian number 10 took full advantage, netting with a right foot shot. But he was once again denied by the offside flag and a quick VAR check confirmed the call again.
It had been a pulsating start, proper end to end stuff. And after 15 minutes, Rangers doubled their lead. Morelos bustled and barged his way through, and Tavernier’s inviting cross was cleared for a corner. But rather than deliver the ball into the box, Kent played it to Jack on the edge of the area. His dinked cross broke for Morelos who volleyed into the far corner.
The Colombian was again at his menacing best in this one. His goal aside, his overall play was of a high standard and the Red Star defence struggled to handle him all night. As for the goal, it saw Rangers’ European talisman match another record too. Back in season 1964/65, Jim Forrest netted six goals as Rangers reached the last eight of the European Cup. That was the most a Rangers player had scored in one European campaign, but adding tonight’s goal to his goals against Malmo, Alashkert, Sparta Prague (2) and Borussia Dortmund took El Buffalo’s tally to six too.
Imbued with renewed confidence, Rangers were full of attacking intent, and after great ball winning from Morelos, the ball was funnelled wide to Tavernier. His cross picked out Kent, but he couldn’t get enough power in his shot to trouble the goalkeeper.
But Red Star, unbeaten since November and boasting 13 wins in their last 15 games, were never going to lie down and accept defeat. And after 23 minutes they were handed a lifeline. There was no need for VAR this time, there was a definite tug by Jack on Ivanic as the Red Star number four advanced into the box. Jack was booked and it was now Katai versus McGregor.
Katai had taken 13 penalties in his career, scoring nine of them, and he had only failed to find the net with one of his last nine attempts from 12 yards. But although he hit a textbook penalty, low and hard, McGregor plunged to his right and got a strong right hand on the ball to divert it away for a corner kick. It was an extraordinary save from a goalkeeper who has been heavily criticised of late.
The corner was scrambled clear after a shot from Dragovic was blocked by Morelos. And the second successive corner also caused anxiety before it was punched clear by McGregor.
There had been no time to draw breath in the opening half hour. Red Star were now enjoying a good spell, but van Bronckhorst had already tinkered with his formation to combat the threat they posed. Lundstram, versatile and dexterous once again, had joined Goldson and Balogun in the centre of the defence and that gave Rangers some fortitude defensively.
The alterations allowed Tavernier and Bassey to act as wing backs, and after 32 minutes, there was a brilliant break by Bassey down the left. His superb ball into the box deserved a telling touch, but it eluded the on-rushing Morelos. And a minute later Rangers had a shout for another penalty.
Kent made headway on the left-hand side of the box and looked to have his arm pulled by Katai. He went down, but the referee resisted a VAR check. The inference from him was that Kent made the most of the challenge. He was well-placed in fairness, but a look at TV replays suggested that there had been contact and a penalty maybe should have been awarded.
A third goal before half time would have sent the supporters to utopia, and it almost arrived five minutes shy of the interval. Brilliant play again down the left saw Kent and Bassey combine and when the ball broke for Kamara, the Finn fizzed a shot inches over the bar. The game then swung to the other end, and McGregor saved on the stretch from Omoijuanfo. And he denied the Norwegian again in added on time, palming his shot away. The goal wouldn’t have counted, though, as the flag was once again raised for offside.
And that was pretty much that as a fantastic first half was brought to a close. It was blood, guts and glory for Rangers, but Red Star certainly weren’t out of it. They had asked questions of the Rangers rearguard, but the changes in formation had helped combat most of their thrusts forward.
The fans were roused again as the players emerged to ‘Simply the Best’ at the start of the second half. And as the teams lined up there was another formation change, 4-3-3 this time. Jack, Lundstram and Aribo were the trio in midfield, while Kamara was still patrolling the number 10 zone and looked to be flanked by Kent and Morelos.
The initial signs were positive from Rangers. Rather than rest on the lead they had built, they looked to pushing for more goals. And after 50 minutes it was 3-0. Both Tavernier and Morelos hustled and harried the Red Star defence, and Tavernier’s cross was cleared for a corner. And rather than go short, the skipper played the ball into the heart of the penalty area where it was met flush on the forehead by Leon Balogun. The ball brushed Borjan’s fingertips before nestling nicely in the corner of the net. Remarkable!
Rangers had been excellent in and out of possession and they were not finished yet as they pushed for a FOURTH goal. Red Star were on the ropes – looking across to their fans you wouldn’t have thought so as they bounced and clapped – and the question now was would the home side deliver a knockout blow?
It almost came after 56 minutes. Kent jinked and jived to win a free kick. He and Tavernier stood over the ball, but the captain took it and went for goal. But although his shot caused the net to ripple, it was the side netting and Red Star survived.
To try and effect the change and turn the tide of the tie, Stankovic withdrew Omoijuanfo and Srnic and introduced Pakov and Ben Nabouhanne. And the latter showed how dangerous the Serbian side were when the ball fell to him at the back post. McGregor once again was at his defiant best.
The game was see-sawing from end to end again, and with 20 minutes to go, Joe Aribo won a corner. Having derived so much success from a pinpoint delivery earlier in the half, Tavernier was after a repeat. And he almost got it, Goldson climbing to meet his corner with his head. Fortunately for Red Star, Dragovic was handily placed to clear the ball off the line.
A couple of minutes later fortune was on Rangers’ side. Rodic teed up Kanga for a shot, and the number eight’s effort swerved as it swung through the air and thudded against the crossbar.
With the pendulum swinging back towards Red Star, van Bronckhorst made a double change. James Sands and Fashion Sakala were introduced for Aribo and Jack, and the noise levels reached a crescendo again as the game entered the final 15 minutes.
Legs were becoming leaden, and possession was getting surrendered and in one such instance, McGregor was once again called upon to deny Katai. It would be the Red Star talisman’s last involvement. He was substituted a couple of minutes later, and he looked less than enamoured with the decision. However, when asked about it in the post-match press conference, Stankovic said that his number 10 was upset not to have had the opportunity to take a free kick Red Star had won a minute earlier in a central position around 25 yards from goal.
Flags were fluttering again with six minutes to go only this time it was the assistant referee on the Sandy Jardine Stand side that intervened. McGregor did well to parry a shot from Ivanic, but Ben Nabouhane was in an offside position when he knocked the ball into the net. It was another tight call, but another that the officials got spot on.
The crowd of 48,589 had stayed on to see the end of this absorbing contest, and they almost witnessed a fourth goal for Rangers. Kamara relieved the pressure by winning a free kick on the left, and Tavernier’s delivery went all the way through to Goldson at the far post. Perhaps he was unsighted, but presented with a free header, he missed the target. Remarkably on a night when the opposition had three goals ruled out and had a penalty saved, Rangers could, and probably should, have won the match 4-0.
At the end of three minutes of stoppage time it was all over, another epic European night complete. But don’t let the 3-0 lead lull you into a false sense of security. This tie is far from over, and Rangers will face a barrage and an onslaught when they go to Belgrade next Thursday. That being said, van Bronckhorst’s side will also pose a threat in the Serbian capital, and you would suspect a Rangers goal would seal the deal.
In the meantime, it’s time to rest and reset – not just the players and coaching staff, but the supporters too – before a tricky trip to Dundee on Sunday.
It’s the business end of the season and Rangers find themselves front and centre and in contention for three prizes. The fight on all fronts continues.