How stretched Rangers hung tough in another Benfica goal-fest and set up enticing Europa League Ibrox second leg

Clement’s depleted team once again put on a show away from home in Europe

It just might be worth tuning in for the second leg of Rangers and Benfica’s Europa League last 16 clash next Thursday. These two European heavyweights know how to put on a show.

When they met twice in 2020, we had a 2-2 and a 3-3. The goals continue to flow four years on. Rangers will fancy their chances back in Glasgow in seven days time after holding their illustrious Portuguese opponents to another 2-2 stalemate at the Estadio da Luz. Benfica are not the force of old, a defensively-challenged outfit under Roger Schmidt who are in a sticky moment in their own title race.

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Ibrox will surely be jumping. Rangers held their own in Lisbon. They rode their luck at times, as Benfica’s much-vaunted attacking quartet of David Neres, Angel di Maria, Rafa Silva and Arthur Cabral continually posed problems. Yet a stretched Rangers defence, like they did in Prague and Seville in the group stages, hung tough for the most part under enormous pressure. And at the other end, they took their chances, through midfielders Tom Lawrence and Dujon Sterling, the latter scoring his first goal for the club.

Benfica's Angel Di Maria, right, and Rangers' Fabio Silva vie for the ball at the Estadio da Luz.Benfica's Angel Di Maria, right, and Rangers' Fabio Silva vie for the ball at the Estadio da Luz.
Benfica's Angel Di Maria, right, and Rangers' Fabio Silva vie for the ball at the Estadio da Luz.

Given manager Philippe Clement was unable to call on any of his five wingers from the start, this will go down as a job well done. The Belgian continues to eke out every last ounce from his squad. They played their part in an end-to-end clash: 35 shots on goal, 18 corners, a penalty, an own goal, VAR drama and another goalkeeping clinic from Jack Butland.

Rangers landed the first blow on seven minutes. Lawrence timed his run to perfectly to meet Mohamed Diomande’s cross and head the ball firmly into the corner of the net from close range. The 3,000-plus Rangers supporters celebrated wildly, sensing another glory night on the road in this tournament. But Benfica had other ideas.

The Portuguese set about restoring parity with urgency. Butland made a couple of excellent stops – one of which came from his own player in John Souttar just before half time – and that action was to prove costly. The defender diverted the ball on to his own hand with a header and referee Tobias Stieler was advised to review the incident by his VAR Marco Fritz. A spot-kick duly came, converted nonchalantly by Di Maria.

Rangers, however, did not feel sorry for themselves, and in the fifth minute of stoppage time they regained the lead. Fabio Silva, back on his old stomping ground, slid a pass into the Benfica box and running from deep, Sterling arrived unmarked to fire the ball home. It was the perfect antidote to the sting of the penalty incident.

Benfica pressed hard in the second period, making Rangers creak. Di Maria continued to pull the strings but his team-mates lacked composure at the vital moment. At the other end, just after the hour mark, Anatoliy Trubin required smart reflexes to deny Silva. The visitors continued to pose a threat themselves.

Benfica’s equaliser seemed likelier and it duly arrived on 67 minutes. Poor Connor Goldson scored an own goal at this stadium last time he visited and the same fate befell him in this match, heading a Di Maria free-kick past a helpless Butland. In truth, the hosts deserved to be level after persistently pressing the Rangers defence.

To their credit, Rangers managed to steady the ship thereafter. This was a fine outcome for Clement and Co. After three draws in four years, we will get a winner next week in Govan.