Alfredo Morelos double helps Rangers cruise to victory in Gibraltar
The Colombian striker scored 14 times in the Ibrox club’s run to the last 16 last season and while his future remains the subject of intense speculation during the current transfer window, he continues to underline the value of his predatory instincts for Steven Gerrard’s side.
Rangers were already 2-0 up through goals from James Tavernier and Connor Goldson when Morelos entered the fray as a half-time substitute. He duly plundered a double, either side of a goal from fellow replacement Jermain Defoe, as Rangers secured a trip to the Netherlands to face Willem II in the next round next week.
Gerrard felt comfortable enough to make six changes to the starting line-up from Saturday’s 4-0 Premiership win over Dundee United, albeit two of them were enforced by the injuries sustained in that contest by Ryan Jack and Brandon Barker.
It meant a rare outing for Greg Stewart who made his first start for Rangers since their tame Scottish Cup exit against Hearts at Tynecastle back in February.
There was little prospect of elimination from another knockout tournament on this occasion, although there was an early reminder of why Gerrard had warned so vigorously against even the hint of complacency on the part of his players.
With less than three minutes on the clock, Lee Casciaro was given more time and space in the penalty area than Gerrard would have expected from his normally watertight defence. But the man who famously scored the winner against Celtic in the first leg of a Champions League qualifier four years ago sent a decent headed opportunity well over the top of Allan McGregor’s crossbar.
Rangers quickly secured the level of control over proceedings expected of them and a better contact from Cedric Itten, as the Swiss striker rose to meet a Borna Barisic free-kick from the right, might have given the visitors the lead in the 12th minute.
Itten then turned provider when he collected a neat through ball from Scott Arfield and drilled in a low cross from the right which Red Imps goalkeeper Kyle Goldwin did well to get to just ahead of Kemar Roofe.
The tempo of Rangers’ play was slower than they would have liked at times, a combination of the sticky artificial pitch and the congested defensive set-up deployed by their hosts.
But before any frustration could creep into their work, Rangers made the breakthrough in the 21st minute. Red Imps captain Roy Chipolina was penalised for a clumsy challenge on Ianis Hagi on the edge of the penalty area. Skipper Tavernier pulled rank to take the free-kick and his confidence was vindicated as he curled a brilliant effort over the defensive wall and high into Goldwin’s top left hand corner.
There was another injury concern for Gerrard when Roofe trudged off before half-time. He was replaced by teenage right-back Nathan Patterson with Tavernier pushing further forward.
Rangers continued to probe patiently for a second goal before the break and Arfield was unlucky to see a 20 yard strike deflected narrowly wide.
But they finally doubled their lead in the fourth minute of first half stoppage time. It came from another set piece after Hagi was fouled by John Sergeant just outside the box. Barisic floated the ball in from the left and Goldson guided a free header home from around eight yards.
Rangers made another change at the start of the second half as Tavernier was replaced by Morelos who joined Itten up front in another tactical reshuffle.
As he searched for his first goal for Rangers, Itten was unable to pounce when Goldwin spilled a free-kick from Hagi as the Imps ‘keeper recovered in time to smother the ball at his feet.
Goldwin then made a fine reaction save to keep out a shot from Stewart, preserving just the slightest hope of a recovery for the home team. They were almost given real encouragement on that front when a mistake by George Edmundson presented Chipolina with a chance from close range but he was denied by a brilliant reaction save from the previously under-employed McGregor.
Itten made way for Defoe in the 66th minute, the veteran striker back in action for the first time since suffering a calf injury during pre-season, and Rangers wrapped up the tie with a third goal a minute later.
Again, it came from a dead ball situation. This time Barisic’s free-kick floated to the right of the Imps penalty area was knocked back across the six yard box by Stewart to provide Morelos with a simple close range tap-in.
Morelos had the final word in the closing stages, completing a professional job by Rangers with a flourish as he chipped a neat finish over Goldwin.
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