How Alfredo Morelos dug Rangers out of a John Lundstram-sized hole in 1-0 win over Alashkert

Alfredo Morelos struck the winner for 10-man Rangers against Alashkert in the Europa League play-off first leg at Ibrox (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)Alfredo Morelos struck the winner for 10-man Rangers against Alashkert in the Europa League play-off first leg at Ibrox (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)
Alfredo Morelos struck the winner for 10-man Rangers against Alashkert in the Europa League play-off first leg at Ibrox (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)
Alfredo Morelos dug Rangers out of a John Lundstram-sized hole at Ibrox to keep their hopes of a fourth consecutive appearance in the group stage of the Europa League alive.

The Scottish champions, still trying to shake off the disappointment of their early exit from the Champions League a week earlier, looked to be in real trouble against Alashkert in the first leg of their play-off round tie when midfielder Lundstram was sent off two minutes before half-time for two bookable offences.

But in a gutsy second half display from Steven Gerrard’s team, their talisman Morelos secured a precious if slender advantage with his 25th European goal for the club.

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Rangers have plenty of work to do in next week’s return fixture against the Armenian champions in Yerevan where they will welcome the return of Glen Kamara after his three-match European suspension.

As they attempt to avoid dropping into the third-tier Europa Conference League, Rangers will need to find a much improved level of performance. The lethargy which has plagued them for much of the past few weeks is proving difficult to recover from.

After what could kindly be termed an indifferent start to his Rangers career, Lundstram appeared to have found his stride with his scoring display in last Friday’s Premier Sports Cup win over Dunfermline.

But this setback for the summer signing from Sheffield United has knocked him back off course as he attempts to convince the Ibrox supporters of his credentials.

Lundstram could have no complaints about either of the cautions he received within the space of a 10-minute spell before the interval.

His first caution came when he found himself on the wrong side of David Khurtsidze as Alashkert’s Russian midfielder tried to set off on a counter attack. Lundstram halted him with a calculated foul, making it an easy decision for Greek referee Anastasios Sidiropoulos.

The official had no hesitation in reaching for the yellow card again, quickly followed by the red, when Lundstram, having carelessly lost possession on the halfway line, pulled back Jose Embalo to prevent the striker breaking clear.

Even before Lundstram left his team-mates a man down, any notion that Rangers could build a comfortable first leg lead in this tie had disappeared.

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Gerrard’s men struggled to find any kind of rhythm from the start against an obdurate and awkward Alashkert side.

Too many Rangers players were off the pace and out of touch. Ryan Kent, another who has toiled badly in the opening weeks of the campaign, appears low on confidence and a shadow of the winger who sparked fear among opposition defences last season.

It was Kent who wasted Rangers’ best opportunity of a disjointed first half, the tempo and pattern of which suited the visitors.

After Rumyan Hovsepyan was robbed of possession by Joe Aribo just outside the Alashkert penalty area, Ianis Hagi slipped in the unmarked Kent on the right only for him to smash his shot against the top of the crossbar.

It was no surprise when Kent failed to reappear for the second half, replaced by Scott Wright as Gerrard looked to reshuffle while still carrying a threat with 10 men.

Wright, deployed up front alongside Morelos while Hagi dropped a little deeper to join Steven Davis and Aribo in midfield, made an instant impression.

Almost immediately from the restart, he surged down the right and swept over a low cross which Hagi came agonisingly close to forcing home on the edge of the six yard box before the ball was scrambled clear.

Wright had electrified a home support whose grumbling levels of discontent had grown steadily louder during the first half.

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He had a strong appeal for a penalty rejected in the 55th minute after another thrilling run into the box ended with him crashing to the turf under a challenge from Alashkert goalkeeper Ognjen Cancarevic. The referee, who was also not convinced by an earlier claim when Calvin Bassey went down too theatrically in a tussle with Wangu Gome, wasn’t winning any popularity contests in Govan.

But Rangers looked far more fluent and menacing than they had done with a full complement of players. Morelos’ influence began to grow and he should have opened the scoring on the hour mark when he headed just wide from a perfectly judged Hagi cross.

The hosts were firmly in the ascendancy now and there could be no faulting the finishing of Morelos when he did make the breakthrough seven minutes later.

James Tavernier hadn’t enjoyed his most effective night, with his distribution leaving much to be desired on several occasions, but the Rangers captain conjured up a fine through ball which caught the Alashkert defence flat-footed and allowed Morelos to race clear on goal.

With Cancarevic slow to advance, Morelos displayed great composure to steady himself and fire a shot low through the Serbian goalkeeper’s legs.

Connor Goldson passed up a glorious chance to give Rangers some breathing space for the second leg when he badly miscued a header from a Tavernier corner in the closing stages. It leaves the tie very much on a knife edge.

Rangers (4-3-3): McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Helander, Bassey; Davis, Lundstram, Aribo (Arfield 81); Hagi (Kelly 90+5), Morelos (Itten 83), Kent (Wright 46). Subs not used: McCrorie, McLaughlin, Simpson, Patterson, Balogun, Barisic.

Alashkert (4-3-2-1): Cancarevic, Kadio, Cameta, Voskanyan, Boljevic; Grigoryan, Hovsepyan, Khurtsidze (Glisic 80); James (Edigaryan 75), Papikyan (Gome 8) (Bezecourt 75); Embalo. Subs not used: Aghekyan, Tankov.

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