Glen Kamara targeted by youthful crowd and sent off as Rangers' Europa League hopes suffer fresh blow in Prague
Kamara’s dismissal for a second bookable offence 16 minutes from the end of a Group A fixture settled by David Hancko’s first half goal for Sparta Prague came in circumstances which added a fresh level of despair to the ongoing battle to eliminate racism from football.
A match which was initially supposed to be played behind closed doors at the Letna Stadium because of racist conduct by Sparta fans during a Champions League qualifier against Monaco earlier this season saw that UEFA punishment commuted to admit supervised groups of children aged six to 14.
But if the hope was to educate younger eastern European minds into adopting more enlightened attitudes, it didn’t work out that way.
Kamara was booed every time he touched the ball. If the jeering was not of a specifically racist nature, there could be no doubt the Finnish midfielder was being specifically targeted as a consequence of the fall-out from Rangers’ clash with Slavia Prague last season which saw Czech defender Ondrej Kudela banned for 10 matches for racially abusing him.
Sympathy for Kamara could be extended to the manner in which he was sent off. While there was no doubt about his first yellow card for a foul on Michal Sacek three minutes before half-time, the second booking was incredibly harsh as the same Sparta player reacted theatrically to a clearly unintentional and harmless arm towards his face in an aerial challenge.
Kamara’s exit hampered Rangers’ efforts to salvage something from the match and they remain bottom of Group A without a point from their first two matches. Their back-to-back clashes with Brondby on the next two match days are now crucial to their hopes of reaching the knockout phase of the competition for a third successive season.
It was a hugely frustrating evening for manager Steven Gerrard who presided over what was Rangers’ fourth defeat in five winless trips to the Czech capital in European club competitions. In the absence of Connor Goldson, he was forced to field a previously untested central defensive duo of Leon Balogun and Calvin Bassey.
Rangers enjoyed plenty of possession but without creating too many clear cut chances, while Sparta’s wastefulness saw them fail to take greater advantage of vulnerability in that reshaped defence.
While there was much to admire in the fluency of Rangers’ work in their attacking half of the pitch during several promising spells before Sparta took the lead, they were guilty of overplaying needlessly in and around their own penalty area.
The warning signs were there from that perspective as early as the 10th minute when possession was given away cheaply and Allan McGregor, recalled in goal to make his 92nd European appearance for the club, had to make a fine reaction save in leaping high to his left to touch away a rising shot from Jakub Pesek.
Rangers’ response was exactly what Gerrard would have hoped for with his decision to start Fashion Sakala up front vindicated by the manner in which the Zambian international’s pace harassed the Sparta defence and allowed the visitors to get up the pitch regularly.
The direct nature of Sakala’s play caused several promising moments and he posted Rangers’ first shot on target of the evening, albeit one comfortably held by Sparta goalkeeper Florin Nita.
That heralded Rangers’ best period of the first half in which both Joe Aribo and Leon Balogun had excellent headed opportunities - the former’s netbound effort blocked by Filip Panak before the latter miscued his attempt horribly wide.
But that sloppiness at the back by Rangers, perhaps not entirely unexpected given the enforced changes in the back four, resurfaced again in the 25th minute to allow Martin Minchev to burst into the box on the left. McGregor again came to the rescue, sticking out his left foot to save the Bulgarian striker’s low shot.
Despite McGregor’s best efforts, Sparta made the breakthrough four minutes later. Hesitancy in the Rangers defence saw captain James Tavernier forced to concede a corner which Pesek curled in from the left. Hancko met it with a header which hit the inside of McGregor’s left hand post and clearly crossed the line before the veteran ‘keeper clawed it back.
Gerrard’s problems continued to pile up as he was forced to make a substitution seven minutes before half-time, Ianis Hagi replacing Juninho Bacuna whose first starting appearance for Rangers was cut short by an injury to his left thigh.
Rangers should have found themselves further behind inside the opening minute of the second half when Bassey was caught out by a simple through ball, allowing Adam Hlozek to burst free. He squared the ball to Pesek who, with all the time and space he needed, let Rangers off the hook by slamming his shot against the bar.
Gerrard introduced Alfredo Morelos for the closing half hour but before the Colombian striker could make any impact, Rangers were reduced to 10 men by Kamara’s departure from proceedings.
The Scottish champions continued to throw men forward but the equaliser never really looked likely. As Lyon, 3-0 winners over Brondby, run away with it at the top of the group, Rangers now have a lot of catching up to do in the race for second place.
Sparta Prague (4-3-3): Nita, Wiesner, Panak, Celustka, Hancko; Sacek, Pavelka, Pesek; Haraslin (Moberg-Karlsson 75), Minchev (Drchal 69), Hlozek (Dockal 90). Subs not used: Heca, Kotek, Gabriel, Pulkrab, Stetina, Polidar, Vindheim, Karabec, Vitik.
Rangers (4-3-3): McGregor, Tavernier, Balogun, Bassey, Barisic; Bacuna (Hagi 38), Davis, Kamara; Aribo (Lundstram 77), Sakala, Roofe (Morelos 66). Subs not used: McCrorie, McLaughlin, Patterson, Wright, Kelly, Arfield, McClelland.
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