Rangers heroes across the pitch but Red Star will wonder how they failed to score

Rangers have placed themselves tantalisingly close to reaching the quarter-finals of a European tournament for the first time in 14 years after securing a remarkable victory over Red Star Belgrade at Ibrox.

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - MARCH 10: Alfredo Morelos of Rangers celebrates after scoring their team's second goal during the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 Leg One match between Rangers FC and Crvena Zvezda at Ibrox Stadium on March 10, 2022 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - MARCH 10: Alfredo Morelos of Rangers celebrates after scoring their team's second goal during the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 Leg One match between Rangers FC and Crvena Zvezda at Ibrox Stadium on March 10, 2022 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Goals from James Tavernier, Alfredo Morelos and Leon Balogun put the Scottish champions in as commanding a position as they could have hoped for in this Europa League last 16 tie.

Giovanni van Bronckhorst and his players will take nothing for granted ahead of the return fixture at the daunting Marakana Stadium next Thursday but it would be a major surprise now if they did not complete their passage to the last eight.

There were heroes all over the pitch for Rangers - Morelos was outstanding as he became the Europa League’s all-time leading scorer with his 32nd goal in the tournament, while veteran goalkeeper Allan McGregor silenced his recent critics with a potentially crucial penalty save.

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - MARCH 10: Leon Balogun of Rangers celebrates scoring his teams third goal during the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 Leg One match between Rangers FC and Crvena Zvezda at Ibrox Stadium on March 10, 2022 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

So much for the pre-match theory shared by many that this was likely to be a circumspect affair. On the contrary, it started at 100 miles per hour and seldom let up. There can seldom have been a more breathless European ties at Ibrox.

VAR’s influence on proceedings began in the second minute when the luckless Aleksandar Katai thought he had made the breakthrough with a sumptuous curling shot beyond McGregor. So too did most of the crowd until a VAR check confirmed Guelar Kanga had been offside in the build-up.

There was an air of bemusement around the stadium when the big screens announced the next VAR intervention after Ryan Kent had gone down in seemingly innocuous fashion under Slavoljub Srnic’s challenge inside the box.

It turned to jubilation when, after going to the pitchside monitor, Dutch referee Serdar Gozubuyuk pointed to the spot. For the third Europa League game in a row, Tavernier converted emphatically. The Rangers captain even survived a slip in his run-up as he sent Milan Borjan the wrong way and drove the ball high to the Red Star goalkeeper’s left.

The pace and drama were utterly unrelenting. Katai had another effort chalked off by VAR, after he had pounced on a fumble by McGregor, before Rangers doubled their lead in the 15th minute.

It was a fine finish from Morelos as he pounced on a poor attempted clearance by Strahinja Erakovic and guided another milestone Europa League goal beyond Borjan’s left hand.

Katai’s misery then continued when he was unable to grab the lifeline provided by Ryan Jack’s tug on Mirko Ivanic which gave Red Star a 24th minute penalty. Normally deadly from the spot, Katai was stunned as McGregor dived to his right to make a magnificent save.

Red Star remained dangerous throughout and will struggle to comprehend just how they failed to score.

But Rangers were clinical and made it 3-0 six minutes after the break, Balogun powering home a header from a Tavernier corner.

Kanga struck the crossbar from distance as Red Star’s luck remained out. Rangers, though, were rewarded for their own bravery on the ball on another memorable European night at Ibrox.

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