Rangers defy UEFA, Allan McGregor defies logic, but no stopping Napoli in the end

Giovanni van Bronckhorst had set his challenge on the eve of the match. There is a time to mourn and there’s also a time to perform. He asked his players to do so at 8pm the following evening.

Allan McGregor certainly got the message. Why stop at saving one penalty on your return to the Champions League at the age of 40 when you can save two? He beat away Piotr Zielinski's first effort and then the retake.

It’s not even being facetious to note that Rangers don’t often face three penalties inside a dozen minutes or so – few teams do. It was certainly too much to expect McGregor to pull off further heroics although he did dive the right way again – to his left this time – when Napoli were given another opportunity to try and beat him from 12 yards after Borna Barisic’s handball. Rangers were already up against it after James Sands was sent off in the incident leading to the initial spot kick.

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Matteo Politano accepted the challenge this time and the change of kicker worked for the visitors. His effort sneaked in. Napoli secured the win in the dying minutes through Giacomo Raspadori and fellow substitute Tanguy Ndombele on a night that will live long in the memory for more than just the multiple penalties drama and a Spanish referee in Antonio Mateu Lahoz who has booked himself a spot in an Ibrox rogues' gallery.

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It was actually 8.02 before the game kicked off after an impeccably observed minute’s silence for Queen Elizabeth II. There was also a giant Union Jack tifo display. But what Uefa will be most interested in is the decision by Rangers to play the national anthem across the Tannoy at Ibrox at the conclusion of the minute’s silence. The fans bellowed out God Save the King as though their lives depended on it and seemed to take even greater satisfaction from doing so given it was against Uefa’s expressed direction.

European football’s governing body will have their say in the coming days. In the meantime, Rangers will regret not taking advantage of this febrile atmosphere on an intense, unique night at Ibrox. The absence of pre-match music and other pre-game ornamentation allowed the stadium to breathe.

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The emotion of the night seemed to feed into their performance and they should have been gone ahead within the first minute. Perhaps not even Alfredo Morelos could believe he had been presented with a chance to score in the opening moments of his first start for nearly six months – and against the current Serie A leaders to boot. The six months detail is relevant. He can’t hope to be sufficiently sharp.

James Tavernier’s cross simply begged to be headed either side of Alex Meret but the Colombian sent it wide of the keeper’s right hand post.

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Rangers and Napoli players observe a minute's silence to mark the death of Queen Elizabeth II ahead of the Champions League match at Ibrox. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images)

The visitors were all at sea and their initial panic was again demonstrated when they made a mess of a short bye-kick and conceded a corner. It will haunt Rangers that they failed to take advantage of this early evidence of tension in the away ranks. It said everything about Napoli's capabilities that not only did they overcome this rocky start, but they almost went ahead themselves in the third minute. A shot from Zielinski whistled through the air and bashed off one of McGregor’s uprights.

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Almost lost amid the National Anthem debate and Morelos’ reinstatement was the return of McGregor, in place of the injured Jon McLaughlin. He was happy to see Zielinski’s effort strike the woodwork but made his own smart intervention to deny Simeone, who had advanced into the box and was looking to slip the ball beyond the ‘keeper. Napoli were looking menacing, but Rangers were still creating chances, although Scott Arfield’s effort – from fully 25 yards – might not be described as such. His sure connection turned a half chance into one that required a full-length diving save from Meret.

It was hard to drag the eyes from Morelos. Something major seemed likely to happen with him at the centre – either a goal or a red card. He was booked for a challenge on Meret as he sought to follow up Tavernier’s header and connected weakly when presented with a chance after 25 minutes. He then completely miskicked on the stroke of half-time after Arfield’s clever lay off.

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Oh Alfie. But the next significant incident involving a Rangers player did not involve him at all.

Rangers defender James Sands is sent off in the 55th minute of the Champions League defeat to Napoli at Ibrox. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images)
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Rather, it was the unfortunate Sands, sent off for a second bookable offence ten minutes into the second half after he and John Lundstram felled Simeone in a sandwich. Sands was the one adjudged to have caught the striker which meant Rangers were down to ten men – and facing the further punishment of a penalty against them.

Zielinski took the kick after a lengthy delay and saw McGregor leap to his right to make a brilliant block. But rarely has such an ear-splitting roar died such a quick death. Matteo Politano swept the rebound past McGregor. No sooner had Luciano Spalletti dared to stick his crutch in the air – the Napoli manager hurt himself in an accident at home – than he was using it to support himself again as it sunk in that the goal would not stand because the scorer had prematurely encroached into the box.

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It was perhaps foolhardy of Zielinksi to aim to beat McGregor a second time. It was certainly injudicious to try by shooting towards the same spot. McGregor’s save was a mirror of the first cue another eruption of Ibrox noise.

But this strange, endlessly fascinating contest had one more twist and it again centred on a whitewashed mark 12 yards from McGregor’s goal. Barisic was penalised for handling Khvicha Kvaratskhelia’s shot and the referee pointed to the spot once more. Ibrox was disbelieving by this point.

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Napoli's Giacomo Raspadori celebrates after scoring his side's second goal in the 3-0 win over 10-man Rangers at Ibrox. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)



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