Rangers remained top of their Europa League group despite drawing a blank at Ibrox for the first time under Steven Gerrard’s management.
It was an evening when a milestone was reached with a new record of 11 European games unbeaten in a single season, eclipsing the mark set by Walter Smith’s Champions League class of 1992-93.
But while the goalless draw against a gritty Spartak Moscow side keeps Rangers firmly in contention to qualify for the knockout phase of the Europa League, it was ultimately a frustrating 90 minutes for Gerrard’s men.
They are now level on points with top seeds Villarreal at the top of Group G at the halfway stage of the campaign, ahead of the Spanish side on the head-to-head record.
As Gerrard had demanded of his players, they looked to ‘get after’ Spartak from the opening whistle in the hope of exploiting any weakness in the mentality of opponents who have endured a turbulent season so far.
Had Alfredo Morelos been more alert and accurate, he might have exploited a sloppy start by the visitors when he was picked out by a James Tavernier corner within the first minute. But the Colombian striker, who can often be guilty of poor coordination when meeting the ball in the air, flicked his header well wide of Aleksandr Maksimenko’s right hand post.
Spartak, with caretaker boss Raul Riancho a restless and constantly animated figure on the edge of his technical area, responded with a set piece opportunity of their own. Brazilian midfielder Fernando’s corner picked out his captain Georgi Dzhiyika who was his effort blocked by Jon Flanagan.
Rangers had the edge in terms of possession and territory but Spartak were more robust and motivated than had been predicted in the aftermath of Italian coach Massimo Carrera’s sacking earlier in the week.
They defended diligently and were more than happy to mix it physically, committing several fouls which the indignant home support felt should have prompted a firmer line from Dutch referee Kevin Blom.
Another dead ball delivery from Tavernier created Rangers’ next glimpse of goal in the 19th minute. Following a scramble around the edge of the six yard box, Lassana Coulibaly saw his shot blocked by Dzhiyika.
Four minutes later, the hosts produced their best move yet when they cut Spartak open with some slick play down the left. Morelos cleverly found Daniel Candeias in space but the Portuguese winger was unable to pick out the unmarked Coulibaly with his cross.
As Rangers steadily increased the tempo of their play, largely sparked by the energetic and adventurous Ryan Kent, they threatened again when the on-loan Liverpool winger combined with Candeias whose cross was spilled by Maksimenko, under pressure from Morelos, at the expense of a corner.
For all of their forward momentum, Rangers lacked incisiveness in the first half and it wasn’t until two minutes before the interval that they managed their first effort on target when Kent’s shot from 22 yards was comfortably saved by Maksimenko.
The Spartak ‘keeper was called into action again five minutes into the second half when Morelos seized on a looping header out of defence from Connor Goldson and burst into the right side of the penalty area. Maksimenko got down smartly to his right to keep out the striker’s low shot.
But rather than signal a spell of sustained pressure from Rangers, it was Spartak who then enjoyed their best period so far. They came close to taking the lead when, after slack play from Coulibaly, Fernando’s shot was deflected narrowly wide off Joe Worrall. Roman Zobnin was then unable to find the target with a difficult chance from close range as the home defence appeared uncertain for the first time.
Gerrard’s men roused themselves back into the ascendancy but continued to find the finishing touch to some promising work elusive. Morelos showed excellent enterprise and strength down the right to set up an inviting opportunity with a low ball across the face of the six yard box but Coulibaly was unable to react quickly enough to take advantage.
Allan McGregor, making his 55th European appearance for Rangers to move into third place behind Barry Ferguson and John Greig on the club’s all-time list, had watched most of the action from a distance. But he was forced into his first save of the night in the 70th minute when he had little difficulty in gathering a long range effort from Spartak substitute Sofiane Hanni.
Gerrard replaced Ryan Jack with Eros Grezda for the closing stages and there was a clamour for a penalty award when the Albanian winger went down in the box during a frantic flurry of pressure from the hosts. Referee Blom was well positioned and unmoved.
Grezda almost snatched a dramatic victory for Rangers with the last kick of the ball but his shot from a Kent pass flew agonisingly and narrowly over the top.
RANGERS: McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Worrall, Flanagan; Ejaria, Jack (Grezda 68), Coulibaly; Candeias (Middleton 86), Morelos, Kent. Subs not used: Foderingham, Halliday, McCrorie, Katic, Lafferty.
SPARTAK MOSCOW: Maksimenko, Rasskazov, Bocchetti, Dzhikiya, Melgarejo; Ignatov (Popov 84), Fernando, Zobnin; Lomovitski (Eremenko 46), Ze Luis, Tashaev (Hanni 46). Subs not used: Rebrov, Petkovic, Kutepov, Timofeev.