With a performance which typified the spirit and resilience which has marked so many of their Europa League displays under Steven Gerrard, Rangers survived the dismissal of Daniel Candeias just before half-time to claim a point which keeps them in contention for a place in the last 32 of the tournament.
The Ibrox side must now win their final group game against Rapid Vienna in Austria on 13 December if they are to extend their European campaign.
The myriad permutations surrounding qualification from Group G had taken another twist even before Rangers kicked off with news of Rapid’s dramatic stoppage time victory away to Spartak Moscow.
It meant Rangers could not be eliminated on the night. The dismissal of Candeias before half-time was a complication they could have done without and they had to settle for a grittily earned point.
Candeias’ saw red at the end of an openly contested first 45 minutes in which Rangers threatened first in the sixth minute. Scott Arfield, who has been in good goalscoring form, reacted sharply to pounce on a cross from James Tavernier but could only direct his shot straight at Villarreal goalkeeper Andres Fernandez.
While the home side brought boundless energy and purpose to the contest, the visitors predictably produced the more intricate and accurate passing football. It almost paid off in the ninth minute when, after Jon Flanagan conceded possession cheaply, Manu Morlanes and Karl Emabi combined down the right to carve out a great opening for Carlos Bacca who was unable to get on the end of it from close range.
Cameroon international Ekambi was causing the Rangers defence all sorts of anxiety and he eased his way clear of Connor Goldson’s challenge to fire in a shot which Joe Worrall did well to block.
Rangers responded as Alfredo Morelos worked space for himself to drill in an effort which was deflected wide of Fernandez’s right hand post. From the resulting corner, whipped to the near post by Tavernier, the Colombian striker almost claimed a clever opener when his flicked effort flew narrowly off target.
The teams continued to trade chances, Ekambi wastefully shooting wide after being set up by Bacca before Goldson got his feet in a tangle and scooped a shot over from close range after Worrall had knocked down Arfield’s cross into his path.
Not for the first time this season, Rangers were indebted to goalkeeper Allan McGregor as Ekambi continued to look the most likely source of a breakthrough for Villarreal. The striker beat the offside trap to leave himself one-on-one with McGregor in the 32nd minute and was denied by fine save from the Scotland number one.
Two minutes before the interval, Ekambi was presented with another glorious chance when he took advantage of Worrall’s indecision to intercept a pass across the face of the Rangers penalty area from Flanagan. Again, Ekambi was unable to seize the opportunity as McGregor advanced from his line and made another outstanding stop.
Rangers’ prospects of imposing themselves on Villarreal suffered a serious blow when Candeias made his early exit from proceedings. The winger had been unhappy with his 36th minute booking for a foul on Jaume Costa, insisting he had made no contact with the Villarreal left-back. But having been cautioned, he was unwise to launch himself into a challenge on Santiago Caseres amid a fracas wide on Rangers’ right hand side of the field.
The Argentinian midfielder certainly made the most of it as he writhed dramatically on the turf but it was enough to prompt Slovenian referee Matej Jug to reach for his yellow card again. Initially, the official appeared to forget he had already booked Candeias but, after prompting from his assistant, he duly flourished the red card to the fury of both the Rangers player and the home support.
Villarreal were emboldened and unsurprisingly dominated possession in the second half. McGregor was now central to Rangers’ hopes of taking something from the game and he made an excellent save low to his left to keep out a shot from Villarreal captain Mario Gaspar, then once again emerged successfully from his personal joust with Ekambi as he made a brave save at the striker’s feet.
While Rangers’ main priority now was the preservation of a point, they retained an attacking intent whenever possible. Glenn Middleton fizzed a rising shot just over, then had the ball in the net from close range only to be correctly denied by an offside flag.
Kyle Lafferty replaced Morelos for the closing stages and the substitute almost announced himself in stunning fashion, unleashing a dipping shot from around 25 yards which Fernandez did well to touch over.
Rangers soaked up some more late pressure from Villarreal, holding out for a result which leaves all four teams in the group still able to qualify.