Were they content with that? Don’t be ridiculous. Hagi conjured up a an even later winner to put Rangers in the driving seat in the tie.
Opportunism was at the heart of this quite extraordinary comeback. Hagi created the platform when trying his luck with a left foot shot that hit the post before beating the previously rock-solid Matheus. It felt as if Rangers had simply secured a foothold in the tie. Then Joe Aribo took it into his mind that he was Ricky Villa.
The substitute twisted this way and that, leaving about four Braga defenders in his wake, before having the composure to drill the ball beyond Matheus. The run resembled Villa’s goal of the century for Spurs against Manchester City in the FA Cup final in 1981.
Wherever this surge of energy had come from, Rangers were right to keep tapping into it. Braga is a forbidding place to seek to win a game of football. They no longer have to after Hagi struck an incredible winner with a deflected free kick with eight minutes remaining. Remarkable though it seems considering the tie seemed moribund after an hour, when Braga established a 2-0 lead, Rangers can proceed to the last 16 with a draw in Portugal next Wednesday.
Even this is a tall order. Braga’s collapse was rendered all the more extraordinary by the way they started the match, and indeed negotiated the majority of it. They are a top class team, though clearly vulnerable to the sort of storming finish Rangers produced here.
The game had to be stopped to remove scraps of polythene from the pre-match tifo display but it felt as if Rangers’ hopes had already been scattered to the four winds by Braga skipper Fransergio’s stunning opener after 11 minutes.
Braga were living up to the status of Portugal’s preeminent team at present. This title was bestowed upon them by Steven Gerrard, who then watched as the visitors tore through Rangers again and again and again. The strange part is Rangers spurned several chances even before scoring three times in 15 minutes to turn the tie on its head.
Matheus denied Alfredo Morelos with his legs in the first half and then turned away a deflected effort from Hagi’s shot in the second.
The fans were playing their part on one of those raucous Ibrox evenings when the stadium itself seem to shake. The players, however, were struggling to tap into this energy and looked strangely laboured for the first three quarters of the match. One could almost have described them as out of sorts if it were not for the fact that this was very much as they have been since returning from the winter break.
Gerrard had hoped a return to the European environment, which Rangers have found invigorating during his tenure, would help re-set a team after their recent domestic struggles. This proved the case, eventually.
The poor conditions of the pitch might have been a factor for Rangers’ initial struggles. However, Braga were able to adapt. They hadn’t even been permitted to train on the pitch on the eve of the game.
Allan McGregor had to react smartly after only four minutes to block Raul Silva’s header. Bruno Viana put the follow up into the side-netting. The superb – and Barcelona bound – Trincao robbed the dithering Steven Davies in midfield. He winger, who will join Barcelona at the end of this season in a £26m move, dragged the ball narrowly past McGregor’s far post when it was returned to him.
It was not all Braga. Despite the evident superiority of their opponents, Rangers could and probably should have had a couple of goals themselves in the opening half and were close to opening the lead themselves. Alfredo Morelos was sprung down the right by Scott Arfield and his cross just eluded the stretching Ryan Kent, who might have been undone by a bad bounce. Rangers might have been better served had it been Morelos on the end of Kent’s cross.
The Colombian is far from flawless in front of goal at present just now, however. He was denied by a fine save with his legs from Matheus when through on goal after 25 minutes. Morelos was also denied at the near post by the ‘keeper when Kent was in a far better position to shoot.
It was ragged from Rangers and the goal that meant they had to chase the game was the result of some sloppy play in midfield from Arfield and Glen Kamara, who played a pass to no-one. Still, Fransergio, who picked up the ball, still had plenty to do. He looked up and hit a shot that swung this way and that before hitting the underside of the bar and going in. The response was eerie silence – maybe even quiet admiration.
That may well have been the case when Braga doubled their lead just before the hour mark through Ruiz. A clever flick from the almost unplayable Trincao set the striker on his way and he chose to ignore other options to his right shoot past McGregor from 22 yards. Rather than deflate Rangers, they were inspired to turn this unpromising situation into one of the great Ibrox nights.