Comedy, the extraordinary and glory: Rangers march on in Champions League quest - but this didn't follow usual script
Rangers’ completely crackers history-making redemption story in Ibrox didn’t follow the script of last season’s probability-defying European triumphs within their own environs. It didn’t follow any bleeding script.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s men became the first team in the near six decades the club has been competing in continental competition to overturn a 2-0 deficit in a home second leg – but not because Ibrox was a cauldron that swept them up.
The 3-0 victory over Union Saint-Gilloise that propelled them to the Champions League play-off round against PSV Eindhoven wasn’t down to majestic play or an early blitz of their opposition. It was a product of bewildering decision-making from opposition players. In the plainest sense of the word, the Belgians handed their rivals the initiative which they seized upon with relish.
That is not demean what is an outrageous success in the final analysis, or what earned it over the entire piece. Rangers, in their run to the Europa League final last season, developed an unshakeable belief that everything, and anything, can happen for them at Ibrox that needs to happen for them. And against Union it pretty much did, as individuals in the visiting side seemed to lose their marbles at crucial moments.
For 42 minutes, Karel Garaets’ team were cruising against hosts huffing and puffing in a relatively subdued arena. Then, for reasons even he himself will surely never know, defender Siebe van der Heyden stuck his arm out to handle a Borna Barisic ball that had been hoisted forward in the most hopeful fashion. James Tavernier was cool-eyed from the spot and in that moment everything changed. And yet it didn’t quite, not entirely.
Rangers, and their denizens inside Ibrox, ramped it up following the interval. But still the tie still remained in the balance – even after Antonio Colak exhibited strong-man strength and determination to force in a header from practically the goalline after the ball had bounced up from keeper Anthony Moris blocking a Scott Arfield shot, just before the hour. But as referee Tasos Sidiropoulos seemed to lose himself with all sort of weird calls as the bedlam cranked up, Union’s keeper produced an error to rival his centre-back when he simply fresh-aired at a Barisic free-kick to allow Mallik Tillman to nod in from a couple of yards out.
It was comical stuff, but the last and loud-to-deafening laughs were all to belong to the Rangers crowd and their players, who by the end boasted late substitute Alfredo Morelos with every touch of the Colombian roared and every second that elapsed roared. And, just the joy that the fans felt at living in the moment, roared, frankly. Folk in their 70s, lifelong Rangers supporters, could bear witness to a comeback the like of which had never been accomplished by any previous incarnation of their team. This recent era is throwing these up every six months, it feels. It was extraordinary and it wasn’t. Because the extraordinary has become the norm on such evenings.
The outcome will be vindication for Van Bronckhorst, and commendations are richly deserved to him for what ultimately ensued. His team ground down their opposition, kept going when they might have lost heart, and any winning selection is always generously considered the right one through that victorious prism. Yet in the early stages it almost felt that van Bronckhorst had indulged in the classic over-correction with the XI he selected. Yes, a 2-0 deficit required to be overturned. And, yes, the Ibrox side were unhelpfully conservative as they were unhelpfully deficit in all respects in the Leuven first leg. There was nothing to quibble over starting Ryan Kent following his recovery from an ankle knock. That was nothing short of a must in the event the winger’s fitness allowed. And the hardly svelte figure Morelos cut in his comeback appearance at the weekend following five months on the sidelines patently precluded his joining Kent in the Rangers manager’s first XI.
The calls made by the Dutchman to furrow the brow came in midfield. Flanking John Lundstram by Scott Arfield and Tom Lawrence made for a central three that offered the prospect of penalty box threat – Arfield and Lawrence the types to get on the end of deliveries – but little in the way of playmaking. And it has been the paucity of the latter across Rangers’ first three games of the season that has made it an edgy spell for the Ibrox legions. Van Bronckhorst’s men weren’t guilty of missing opportunities in their Belgian bungle; they were guilty of failing to fashion them.
A sprightly opening from Kent suggested he could provide a degree of the inspiration cried out for. However, following a series of early corners and Colak glancing a header over when supplied a glorious opportunity by a Tavernier free-kick, Rangers intensity fizzled out. As Ibrox then, for all its fabled powers for wilting opponents with its pumped-up ferocity on such evenings, had offered little such fizz. It was as if the lightness and warmth of such a summer’s evening had a deadening effect. The intense, closed-in effect created by the cloak of darkness in the March and April glory nights of the run to the Europa League wasn’t evident. But such encounters are never one-act plays. They are epics when the plot lines twist in unimaginable ways, often with no telegraphing. Even if the ending always seems to be the same.