Rangers 1-0 Legia: Alfredo Morelos fires Ibrox side into group stage

They may be imperilled by some of their supporters off the pitch but Rangers remain a positive force on it under Steven Gerrard as they claimed a place in the Europa League group stage for a second successive year.

Alfredo Morelos celebrates his crucial late goal for Rangers. Picture: SNS
Alfredo Morelos celebrates his crucial late goal for Rangers. Picture: SNS

A stoppage time goal from Alfredo Morelos gave Gerrard’s men a hard-earned but thoroughly deserved victory over Legia Warsaw as the manager’s impressive record in the competition since taking charge continued.

It maintains Rangers’ unbeaten start to the season on all fronts and - further Uefa sanctions permitting- should see another much-needed financial boost for the Ibrox coffers.

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The victory also ensures Rangers sustain the feelgood factor engendered under Gerrard since the start of the campaign and sets them up for Sunday’s intriguing and hotly anticipated opening Old Firm showdown with Celtic at Ibrox.

Despite the 3000 empty seats enforced by Uefa’s punishment of Rangers for sectarian chanting earlier in the tournament, there was no noticeable diminishment in the atmosphere at kick-off.

The Rangers fans, who warmly applauded PA announcements and big screen displays asking for an end to any form of discriminatory conduct, created a raucous din which was complemented by the travelling Legia support. Numbering around 1000, and with former Celtic goalkeeper Artur Boruc among them, the visitors even brought some satirical humour to the occasion when they unfurled a giant banner of Pope John Paul II just before the action got underway. The late Polish pontiff, reputedly a decent goalkeeper in his youth, would surely have approved.

In a pulsating start on the pitch, both teams threatened quickly. Scott Arfield was unable to make the most of a promising break, losing his footing on the edge of the Legia penalty area. An immediate counter-attack was launched, presenting Sandro Kulenovic with an opening but his shot was held by Allan McGregor.

Another piercing run from Arfield saw Morelos blatantly body-checked on the edge of the penalty area. The referee played advantage as the ball broke to Sheyi Ojo but the on-loan Liverpool winger dragged his shot well wide.

The stretched and frenetic opening exchanges continued when Rangers lost possession cheaply from their own throw-in, gifting Kulenovic another sight of goal. The Croatian striker lacked composure as he scuffed his shot wide.

Rangers should have made the breakthrough in the 10th minute when a perfectly weighted cross from Ryan Jack, who had cleverly worked space for himself on the right, picked out Morelos. It was a gift of a chance for the Colombian striker who contrived to screw his header wide from no more than six yards out.

The tempo gradually eased slightly, an air of tension creeping into the play of both teams who clearly sensed the importance of scoring first in such a finely balanced tie.

Joe Aribo, the most telling creative influence in midfield for Rangers, put the Legia defence on the back foot with a sharp run and pass to Morelos. The striker’s best option looked to be a return pass to the unmarked Aribo but he chose to attempt a shot himself which was comfortably gathered by Legia goalkeeper Radoslaw Majecki.

There was a real let-off for Rangers in the 34th minute when weak defensive play from their captain James Tavernier allowed Luquinhas to wriggle his way clear into the penalty area. Fortunately for the hosts, the Brazilian winger’s shot carried no conviction and was held by McGregor.

Legia could perhaps count themselves fortunate not to be reduced to 10 men four minutes later when a yellow card was deemed sufficient punishment for Pawel Stolarski’s dangerous two-footed foul on Aribo.

As Rangers found it more difficult to find any penetration in their attacking third, it was Legia who threatened again in first half stoppage time. Valerian Gvilia’s corner from the right was met by Cafu who headed narrowly wide of McGregor’s right hand post.

Rangers began the second half with a fresh sense of urgency and it needed a smart block from Legia central defender Igor Lewczuk to cut out a close range shot from Morelos. Lewczuk had been impressive throughout in subduing Rangers’ best attacking moves and he did so again to brilliantly cut out the danger in the six yard box after a slick move involving Steven Davis, Arfield and Tavernier.

The hosts were generally in the ascendancy and Majecki was forced into his most significant contribution yet when he threw himself to his right to divert Ojo’s powerful drive behind for a corner.

There was a brief halt to proceedings with 15 minutes remaining when the referee took both teams to the side of the pitch as smoke from flares let off by the Legia fans enveloped the ground. The Poles can expect a disciplinary charge in the mail from Uefa.

Extra time was looming large until the dramatic finale. The hearts of the home fans were in their mouths in the 90th minute when Legia substitute Jaroslaw Niezgoda broke clear but saw his shot saved by McGregor.

One minute into stoppage time, Ibrox was in utter ferment when Morelos struck the winner. Substitute Jordan Jones whipped over a superb cross from the left and this time the striker made no mistake as he nodded home from close range.

There were some fractious scenes at full-time as players from both teams clashed but order was quickly restored as the celebrations of the home support rang into the night.