Catatonic is the only way to describe Rangers in the first leg of their third-round qualifier. Calamitous is the only way to describe what damage was inflicted on their quest to bring group-stage football at football’s top table for the first time in 12 years. The poverty of Rangers’ display was utterly jaw-dropping. Never mind that they could rarely raise a gallop. It was as if those in Rangers colours were wearing blinkers so disorganised and creatively-challenged were they across an abject 90 minutes.
The easy lines to trot out would be that they were unrecognisable from the team that contested the Europa League final in Seville only two months ago, that the loss of the energy and invention of Calvin Bassey and Joe Aribo, respectively, have handicapped them more than anticipated. This neglects one salient fact, though. Rangers posted only a single win from the ten European encounters they played outside of their Ibrox environs last season.
Of course, it was the mightiest of victories in taking the form of a 4-2 thumping of Borussia Dortmund in their own backyard. Otherwise, Rangers depended on the Ibrox factor in return legs to overwhelm Braga and Leipzig. Crucially, though, they were never asked to overturn a two-goal deficit in those ties. They are now staring at exiting the Champions League qualifiers prematurely in the eyes of their fans and many onlookers, just like they did last year under Steven Gerrard when losing to Malmo.
It might sound like the most desperate straw-clutching, but Rangers can consider themselves fortunate to be within two goals of a vibrant Belgian opponent. An opponent who were their antithesis in playing with real tempo, hunger and incisiveness. Were it not for James Tavernier producing a goalline clearance in the final seconds, and a couple of decent blocks from Jon McLaughlin, USG would have secured the lop-sided scoreline that the lopsided performance levels warranted.
There was also misfortune for Rangers in a cruel VAR decision, which came with the awarding of a 74th-minute penalty awarded after a shot that cannoned off Ben Davies had left Connor Goldson, a yard away, powerless to prevent it striking his outstretched hand. Coolly tucked away by Dante Vanzeir, the spot-kick wasn’t nearly as shocking as how the visitors had found themselves a goal down 27 minutes in. The half-baked efforts of Borna Barisic, Ryan Jack and James Sands to make ball-winning challenges and prevent a cross coming in from the right-hand channel of the box gave way to McLaughlin allowing a Teddy Teuma shot that grazed Connor Goldson to go through him. The goalkeeper copped flak for the strike but many players in white were at fault.
The collective chaos from his players led to Van Bronckhorst shaking his head in disgust on the touchline. Yet, there will be some who will shake their heads over the Dutchman sending out such a conservative formation, with John Lundstram dropped back to form a three-man central defence alongside Goldson and Sands. It may have proved masterful in the run to Seville. But that was then, and the past, as they say, is a foreign country. And Rangers don’t often turn it on in such lands, it seems.