There was no redemption in the Rhineland as Rangers’ Europa League campaign was finally ended by a 1-0 defeat by Bayer Leverkusen at the Bay Arena.
Steven Gerrard’s team were made to wait five months for another shot at the German giants but the damage done in March’s 3-1 first-leg defeat at Ibrox proved too much to recover.
Peter Bosz’ impressive Bundesliga outfit will now march into Monday’s quarter-final shootout with Inter Milan in nearby Dusseldorf after Moussa Diaby’s early second-half strike sealed a 4-1 aggregate triumph. The coronavirus crisis may have put the second leg on ice for almost 150 days but Leverkusen remained red hot.
Gerrard would have loved to have had the option of spicing up his line-up with summer recruits Leon Balogun, Kemar Roofe and Cedric Itten but all three were ineligible.
Instead he opted to give Brandon Barker his chance following an impressive pre-season campaign, while Filip Helander’s fitness levels were also put to the test as the defender came in for the first time since injuring his foot in December’s Betfred Cup final. Rangers’ game plan was clear. Fall back into the trusty defensive shape which has served them so well through their previous 17 games of this 13-month European campaign before using Barker and Ryan Kent’s pace to spring on the counter.
They had four early chances to test that ploy out but on each occasion a final pass let them down.
Rangers needed to be utterly ruthless if they were to grab the three away goals required to overturn the tie but they went in at half-time just grateful that their slick hosts had been in a forgiving mood.
Helander failed to deal with a cross from Lars Bender on 16 minutes and £70 million-rated Chelsea target Kai Havertz almost made the Swede pay as he rattled a first-time strike off Allan McGregor’s bar.
Havertz’s quality was clear as he glided across the pitch but he should have netted seven minutes later as Exequiel Palacios sent the playmaker racing through a static Rangers defence, only for the 21-year-old to tug wide.
Helander, above, looking strong despite eight months out, was smarter on his feet two minutes before the break as he leapt in to block at Florian Wirtz’s feet after Leverkusen had hit Rangers on a quick counter-attack.
With sweltering 32 degree heat at kick-off, it had been a taxing first 45 minutes for the Scots as Leverkusen dominated with 70 per cent possession.
And it took the hosts just six minutes to exploit fatigue in the Rangers ranks as Charles Aranguiz spotted Diaby’s run beyond James Tavernier. The French Under-21 international did the rest, chesting down before rifling into McGregor’s net. The Rangers No 1 remained resilient, kicking away another close-range Havertz attempt while Connor Goldson was denied a lifeline for the visitors when his header from a Borna Barisic free-kick was booted off the line by Edmond Tapsoba.
If this was to be the last time Alfredo Morelos – still the subject of lingering speculation linking him with Lille – was seen in a Rangers jersey, it was a sorry ending.
The Colombian made way for Greg Stewart with quarter of an hour left following a thoroughly ineffective display which just about summed up his 2020 so far.
The full-time whistle brought the curtain down on a campaign from which Rangers can still take huge pride after battling through to the last 16 from the first round of qualifiers.
But Gerrard will not have to wait long to see his team back testing themselves in continental action, with Rangers due to enter the new season’s qualifiers on 17 September.
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