Malmo 2-1 Rangers: Absence of players keenly felt but late Steven Davis strike breathes life into tie

There’s a first time for everything – but for Steven Gerrard, his first defeat in a European qualifying match as Rangers manager may not prove to be as costly as it appeared going deep into stoppage time in Malmo on Tuesday evening.

Rangers' Croatian defender Borna Barisic vies with Malmo's Croatian forward Antonio Colak.
Rangers' Croatian defender Borna Barisic vies with Malmo's Croatian forward Antonio Colak.

Thanks to the ageless class and dependability of Steven Davis, whose stunning 95th minute goal put this Champions League third qualifying round tie firmly back in the balance, Gerrard’s hopes of leading his squad to the group stage remain very much alive after a 2-1 defeat in Sweden.

After 19 undefeated games in Europa League qualifying games in the previous three seasons, his squad found the step up to Champions League level a different story altogether.

The Scottish champions looked to have it all to do at Ibrox next Tuesday night after a calamitous start to the second half saw two goals in the space of three minutes from Soren Rieks and Veljko Birmancevic gave Malmo an ominous advantage.

Rangers boss Steven Gerrard looks on from the sidelines.

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It certainly wasn’t the return to Europe’s elite club competition which Rangers and their supporters had envisaged after a decade-long wait for another shot at reaching the group stage.

But thanks to Davis, Scotland’s reigning Player of the Year and still massively influential at the age of 36, that target is still well within their reach.

Defensive lapses

It will still require a premium performance from Gerrard’s men next week if they are to earn a play-off round tie against Olympiakos or Ludogorets. They will have to avoid any repeat of the lapses in concentration which cost them so dearly just after the break in the Eleda Stadium.

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Malmo's Swedish midfielder Oscar Lewicki is closed down by Rangers' Scott Arfield.

Rangers should also be boosted by the return of striker Alfredo Morelos for an occasion where their European talisman could prove crucial.

Of the seven changes Gerrard made to his starting line-up from Saturday’s facile 3-0 win over Livingston at Ibrox in the Premiership opener, some were forced upon him while others were by design.

Cedric Itten’s impressive pre-season form had always made him the leading candidate to lead the line for Rangers in this tie in the always anticipated Morelos and the big Swiss striker was clearly eager to seize the opportunity.

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But while Itten’s hold-up play was intelligent and tidy, he lacks the dynamism of Morelos. Rangers also missed the composure in midfield of Glen Kamara, one of three players out through suspension. While European debutant John Lundstram showed some nice touches, it was an area of the pitch where Rangers were unable to exert the kind of control they normally enjoy.

Frantic pace

Clear scoring opportunities were at a premium for both sides, especially in a first half which was certainly far more frenetic than Gerrard would have preferred. Malmo, doubtless looking to make their superior match sharpness count with the Swedish season underway since April, looked to set a pace that prevented Rangers settling into the kind of cohesive passing rhythm which has become their trademark in Europe over the past three years.

James Tavernier, unsurprisingly, looked the likeliest source of an assist in the attacking third of the pitch and the Rangers captain set up his team’s best opportunities of the opening 45 minutes.

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Scott Arfield might have done better with a first time effort rather than controlling Tavernier’s cross and producing a tame shot which Malmo goalkeeper Johan Dahlin gathered with ease.

Ryan Kent, his pace and trickery always a threat, was denied by a superb block from Lasse Nielsen after the Rangers winger had chopped back onto his right foot after collecting another cross from Tavernier after a superb surging run from the right-back.

Those chances came either side of Allan McGregor having to make a fine – but, for him, routine – save to keep out a low drive from former Celtic loanee Jo Inge Berget as the Norwegian midfielder cut in from the right.

Quickfire double

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But McGregor was left as bewildered as the rest of his team-mates by Malmo’s stunning start to the second half which saw the balance of the tie shift dramatically in favour of the hosts.

The defensive solidity which has served Rangers so well in recent times deserted them as Rieks and Birmancevic plundered those two quickfire goals.

Birget and Birmancevic combined to slice open the visitors’ back four for the opener, Rieks unattended as he beat McGregor with a well placed right foot volley.

Before Rangers could recover their composure, they were 2-0 down. Tavernier put Steven Davis in trouble with an ill-advised pass which allowed Malmo captain Anders Christiansen all the time he needed to pick out Birmancevic whose low left foot shot went in off McGregor’s left hand post.

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Itten made way for Fashion Sakala just after the hour mark as Rangers looked to inject greater pace into their attacking efforts and the Zambian striker was unlucky not to mark his European debut with a goal when he got on the end of a Scott Wright cross and saw his shot deflected just wide.

Rangers turned up the heat in the closing stages when it was Malmo who began to look leg-weary and, with just 17 seconds left on the clock, Davis came up with what may prove to be a precious contribution when his firm left foot shot beat Dahlin to his left.

Malmo (4-2-3-1): Dahlin, Lewicki, Ahmedhodzic, L.Nielsen, Moisander; Birmancevic (Nalic 74), Innocent; Berget, Christiansen (Rakip 89), Rieks (Beijmo 88); Colak (Abukari 88). Subs not used: Ellborg, M.Johansson, Larsson, Gwargis, Eile, Brorsson, Bjorkqvist, Nanasi.

Rangers (4-3-3): McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Helander, Barisic; Arfield, Davis, Lundstram; Wright, Itten (Sakala 63), Kent. Subs not used: McCrorie, Hogarth, Patterson, Bassey, Kelly, Hagi, Simpson, Lowry.

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