Rangers 2-0 Sparta Prague: Alfredo Morelos double gives Giovanni van Bronckhorst ideal start and seals Europa League knockout qualification

As Giovanni van Bronckhorst delivered the new manager bounce Rangers needed, Alfredo Morelos produced a familiar Europa League narrative.

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - NOVEMBER 25: Rangers' Alfredo Morelos celebrates his opener with Borna Barisic (left) during a UEFA Europa League match between Rangers and Sparta Prague at Ibrox Stadium, on November 25, in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)
GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - NOVEMBER 25: Rangers' Alfredo Morelos celebrates his opener with Borna Barisic (left) during a UEFA Europa League match between Rangers and Sparta Prague at Ibrox Stadium, on November 25, in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

On a memorable return to Ibrox for the Dutch coach, whose name was sung long and loud by a jubilant home crowd, the Colombian striker was the talisman in this tournament once again as his double saw off Sparta Prague and secured a place in the knockout stage for the third consecutive season.

Morelos has now extended his club record tally of European goals for Rangers to 27 and if van Bronckhorst can get the best out of him on a consistent basis, it will unquestionably enhance the the initial stages of his tenure.

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Coupled with Brondby’s defeat at home to Group A winners Lyon, Rangers’ victory means they are now guaranteed to progress in second place because of their superior head-to-head record over Sparta.

Van Bronckhorst had promised the Rangers supporters they would see a difference in their team’s approach and style under his guidance and the early indications were that he would make good on that pledge.

His first team selection saw just two changes to the side beaten by Hibs at Hampden last Sunday - Calvin Bassey replaced the injured Leon Balogun in central defence, while Ianis Hagi was restored to the starting line-up at the expense of Scott Arfield.

Of more significance, perhaps, was the tweak van Bronckhorst made to the system. While he is generally a proponent of the 4-3-3 formation which was his predecessor Steven Gerrard’s default setting, he opted for a 4-2-3-1 here.

With Steven Davis and Glen Kamara as the sitting midfielders, Hagi and Ryan Kent flanked Joe Aribo in the advanced trio supporting central striker Morelos.

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - NOVEMBER 25: Alfredo Morelos of Rangers scores their side's first goal from the penalty spot during the UEFA Europa League group A match between Rangers FC and Sparta Praha at Ibrox Stadium on November 25, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Aribo seemed to relish his new role and was instrumental in a dynamic start to the match which saw Rangers almost make the breakthrough inside the opening 15 seconds when Hagi sent Morelos clear down the right, the Colombian’s low cross just too close to Sparta goalkeeper Dominic Holec who was able to gather the ball ahead of Kent.

The tempo of Rangers passing was noticeably higher than it has been for much of the season, while they also looked to get the ball into forwards areas with a greater sense of urgency.

Aribo was unlucky not to score in the sixth minute. Kent’s meandering run into the Sparta penalty area saw him cut the ball back for Aribo who took a touch before sending a rising shot against the crossbar.

The visitors were struggling to cope with Rangers’ pace and movement at this stage and it was no surprise when the opener arrived in the 15th minute.

Rangers' Nigerian midfielder Joseph Ayodele-Aribo (R) watches his shot hit the bar during the UEFA Europa League Group A football match between Rangers and Sparta Prague at the Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow on November 25, 2021. (Photo by Paul ELLIS / POOL / AFP) (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

James Tavernier combined smartly with Hagi to send the Romanian racing free down the right. His low cross found Morelos who had time and space to guide a precise low shot beyond Holec’s right hand into the corner of the net.

The lead should have been doubled eight minutes later when the link-up play of Tavernier and Hagi on the right again had the Sparta defence in all sorts of trouble. While Hagi’s cross bounced a little awkwardly as it found Aribo, the Nigerian international would feel he should have done better than loft his shot narrowly over.

Sparta gradually worked their way back into the match with the duo of Tomas Weisner and Lukas Haraslin down their right flank causing concern for Rangers on more than one occasion.

They combined to create the visitors’ best opening of the first half and it needed a sharp intervention from Allan McGregor to divert Martin Minchev’s shot wide of his left hand post for a corner.

Having lost some of their impetus before the break, Rangers stepped it up again at the start of the second half and Kent reignited the atmosphere inside Ibrox when he cut inside and curled a shot just wide of Holec’s left hand post.

From the subsequent goal kick, Sparta got themselves into an unfathomable mess to present Morelos with his second goal of the night. As they tried to play out from the back, David Pavelka put Filip Panak under pressure with a short pass which saw the central defender inexplicably try to chip the ball across the face of his own penalty area. He merely succeeded in putting it straight into the path of Morelos who headed beyond the helpless Holec from close range.

Sparta were on the rack now as confidence flowed through the Rangers ranks. Chances to add to the lead were created on an increasingly regular basis with Kent, Morelos and Aribo all passing up more than decent openings to make the points safe.

Without the comfort of a third goal, Rangers ran the risk of conceding one which would have extended the race for second place in the group to the final round of fixtures. They were extremely fortunate to avoid that scenario in the 76th minute when a brilliant cross from David Moberg-Karlsson picked out his fellow substitute Adam Karabec who somehow contrived to head the ball from little more than four yards out.

It then needed a stunning double save by McGregor, the 39-year-old somehow keeping out close range efforts from Ladislav Krejci and Matej Pulkrab as Sparta pushed for the goal they needed to keep their hopes alive.

As it is, Rangers can now go into their final game at Lyon on December 9 safe in the knowledge they have Europa League football to look forward to after Christmas.

Rangers (4-2-3-1): McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Bassey, Barisic; Davis (Lundstram 89), Kamara; Hagi (Patterson 66), Aribo (Arfield 81), Kent (Sakala 81); Morelos. Subs not used: McCrorie, McLaughlin, Jack, Bacuna, Wright, Kelly, King.

Sparta Prague (4-2-3-1): Holec, Wiesner, Panak, Krejci II, Hancko; Sacek, Pavelka; Haraslin (Moberg-Karlsson 59), Hlozek (Pulkrab 85), Krejci I (Karabec 59); Minchev (Dockal 59). Subs not used: Nita, Heca, Gabriel, Soucek, Drchal, Vindheim, Vitik.

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