How Rangers escaped red-hot Rajko Mitic Stadium in one piece as Europa League quarter-finals beckon

Rangers survived the stifling atmosphere of the Rajko Mitic Stadium in Belgrade to ensure they will now breathe the rarefied air of the Europa League quarter-finals.

BELGRADE, SERBIA - MARCH 17: Ryan Kent of Rangers celebrates with team mate James Tavernier after scoring their sides first goal during the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 Leg Two match between Crvena Zvezda and Rangers FC at Rajko Mitic Stadium on March 17, 2022 in Belgrade, Serbia. (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)
BELGRADE, SERBIA - MARCH 17: Ryan Kent of Rangers celebrates with team mate James Tavernier after scoring their sides first goal during the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 Leg Two match between Crvena Zvezda and Rangers FC at Rajko Mitic Stadium on March 17, 2022 in Belgrade, Serbia. (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)

On a night when Mirko Ivanic’s 10th-minute strike for Red Star provided the Serbian champions with genuine hope of overturning their 3-0 first leg deficit from the first leg of the last 16 tie, Ryan Kent’s goal 11 minutes into the second half eased Rangers’ nerves and effectively settled the outcome.

A stoppage-time penalty kick converted by Ben Nabouhane gave Red Star victory on the night but could not diminish the scale of the achievement for Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s men who have taken the Ibrox club into the last eight of a European tournament for the first time in 14 years.

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They owed much to Allan McGregor, a man so many of their supporters have been in such an unseemly hurry to write off at different stages of this season.

BELGRADE, SERBIA - MARCH 17: Mirko Ivanic of Crvena Zvezda scores their sides first goal past Allan McGregor of Rangers during the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 Leg Two match between Crvena Zvezda and Rangers FC at Rajko Mitic Stadium on March 17, 2022 in Belgrade, Serbia. (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)

The 40-year-old followed up his first leg penalty save with a series of crucial stops in the return fixture to prevent Red Star from gathering the kind of momentum which might have proved unstoppable.

Rangers were also well served by John Lundstram, who continues to grow in stature as an influential midfield presence, as they emerged successfully from a test which was both physically and mentally demanding.

The concession of the early goal which added an unwanted layer of tension to proceedings for the Scottish champions was eminently avoidable from their perspective.

Having actually started the match looking calm and assured, they were remarkably sloppy in their defending of the corner which Aleksandar Katai took short to Guelor Kanga on the right. Rangers failed to react quickly enough and when they were unable to get first contact with Kanga’s cross, the ball dropped to Ivanic who had time to chest it down before burying a close range shot beyond McGregor.

But for the veteran goalkeeper, Rangers would have found themselves in an even more fragile position at the break.

For although van Bronckhorst’s side regained their composure for lengthy patterns of play, it was Red Star who carved out the clearer scoring chances.

McGregor got down superbly to his left to deny Ivanic a quickfire second goal and displayed his outstanding reactions again on the stroke of half-time when he stretched out his right hand to divert Cristiano Piccini’s shot over the crossbar.

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With Milan Pavkov having also dragged a shot wide with the goal at his mercy, Rangers were certainly living dangerously.

They continued to ride their luck at the start of the second half as the ball flashed across the face of their six yard box and Ohi Omoijuanfo made a mess of a glorious opportunity.

But Red Star’s impetus was crucially halted by Kent’s intervention. The winger exchanged passes with Glen Kamara before racing clear of the stricken Piccini to fire in a shot which took a deflection off Aleksandar Dragovic before beating goalkeeper Milan Borjan.

McGregor made a double save from Kanga and Nabouhane as Red Star roused themselves again but their efforts became gradually more lacking in conviction.

They did score again, Nabouhane beating McGregor from the spot after Kamara fouled Filippo Falco, but it was too late and mere consolation.

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