How misfiring Alfredo Morelos made Rangers sweat for Europa League success against 10-man Alashkert
The goalless draw at the Republican Stadium wasn’t especially pleasant viewing for the self-isolating Rangers manager who was unable to make the trip to Armenia along with six of his first team squad due to the return of positive Covid-19 tests at the Ibrox club.
For the second European tie in a row, his team toiled to take advantage of opponents reduced to 10 men before half-time.
But unlike their Champions League third qualifying round defeat against short-handed Malmo, the Scottish champions were able to see the job through against Alashkert who had Brazilian midfielder James sent off for two bookable offences.
Alfredo Morelos’ goal in the first leg at Ibrox last week ultimately proved decisive in taking Rangers through 1-0 on aggregate and into Friday’s group stage draw.
But this would have been a far less anxious return fixture for them had the Colombian international not been guilty of passing up three relatively simple chances he would normally expect to bury.
Although Robby McCrorie was rarely troubled as he made his Rangers debut due to the absence of senior goalkeepers Allan McGregor and Jon McLaughlin, there were too many moments when his defence rode their luck in preventing a goal for Alashkert which might have forced extra-time.
Given the trying circumstances surrounding the match, along with the stifling heat it was played in, Rangers will simply be gratified to progress. They will now hope reinforcements are available on Sunday when a much improved level of performance is likely to be required against Celtic at Ibrox.
If ever there was a team which picked itself, it was pretty much this one for Rangers. Yet despite the limitations placed on the selection, it was still a strong and largely experienced starting line-up which contained nine full internationals.
Only McCrorie and central defender Goldson, the latter captain of the side in the absence of James Tavernier, have not represented their countries at senior level.
The subs’ bench provided the clearest indication of how deeply Rangers had to drill down into their squad as it was filled out by five teenagers from their B team, including back-up ‘keeper Jay Hogarth.
Even before James’ senseless dismissal removed another layer of jeopardy from the tie from Rangers’ perspective, they should have been in complete control. That they weren’t was due to uncharacteristically poor finishing on the European stage by Morelos.
He passed up two golden opportunities to make the breakthrough in the opening half hour. The first chance to come his way was as a consequence of slack play from Alashkert captain Artak Grigoryan around the edge of his own penalty area which was typical of the risks the home side were prepared to take in possession.
Scott Arfield pounced on the mistake to leave Morelos with only Ognjen Cancarevic to beat but he blazed his shot wildly over, much to the relief of the Alashkert goalkeeper.
Morelos did force Cancarevic into action with his next attempt but it was a simple save for the big Serbian as the Rangers striker, sent racing clear through the middle by Arfield, shot tamely at him.
In between times, Cancarevic was forced into a fine save when he dived to his right to touch a Joe Aribo shot onto the post after Ianis Hagi and Nathan Patterson had linked up down the right in one of Rangers’ better moves.
At the other end, McCrorie enjoyed a fairly serene introduction to first team football with Rangers despite an early scare when Jose Embalo broke free and set up a chance which David Khurtsidze flicked over the top.
McCrorie’s most notable involvement before the interval was in the red card shown to James. He was booked in the 36th minute, the punishment either for his foul on Aribo or his petulant reaction to being penalised.
Either way, he left German referee Tobias Stieler with little option but to send him off three minutes later when he left his boot in on McCrorie after the ‘keeper had advanced from his line to gather the ball comfortably before him.
Rangers were unable to impose themselves as might have been expected on the 10 men now facing them and there were warning signs that the tie was still in the balance when Aleksandar Glisic headed over early in the second half.
McCrorie had to make his first genuine save of the night in the 58th minute, dealing well with a snap shot from Embalo, as Alashkert began to push more men forward.
The introduction of Cedric Itten for the off-colour Hagi allowed Rangers to get further up the pitch again in the latter stages but Morelos scorned another chance to give them breathing space when he volleyed over from close range after being picked out by Patterson’s superb cross.
Rangers ultimately saw the game out without too much fuss and Aribo was unlucky not to have the final word in stoppage time when his shot was deflected onto the crossbar.
Alashkert (4-3-1-2): Cancarevic, Kryuchkov, Voskanyan, Cameta, Boljevic; Khurtsidze (Fofana 88), Hovsepyan (Bezecourt 46), Grigoryan (Gome 75); James; Glisic (Tankov 61), Embalo (Aghekyan 87). Subs not used: Yurchenko, Deou.
Rangers (4-3-3): McCrorie, Patterson, Goldson, Helander, Barisic; Arfield, Davis, Kamara; Aribo, Morelos, Hagi (Itten 64). Subs not used: Hogarth, Balogun, Kelly, Lowry, Lyall, McKinnon, McClelland.
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