Scott Arfield and Kemar Roofe had Steven Gerrard’s side on course for the victory which would have sealed their place in the knockout stage of the Europa League with two games to spare but two goals in three minutes late in the second half from the visitors, who certainly merited a share of the spoils, means Rangers still have work to do.
They remain top of Group D and will be confident of finishing the job against Standard Liege at Ibrox next week.
Midfield strength on show
The quality of midfield resources now at Gerrard’s disposal was underlined by the strength of the central trio he was still able to name despite being without Ryan Jack, Joe Aribo and Bongani Zungu. While the unavailability of Jack and Zungu with minor injuries had been anticipated, Aribo’s absence was unexpected.
But most managers would be content to place their faith in a midfield line of Steven Davis, Glen Kamara and Scott Arfield, as Gerrard was able to do.
They took their place in another strong Rangers starting eleven with Davis and Kamara the only two changes from the side which had swept Aberdeen aside 4-0 in the Premiership on Sunday.
A combination of Covid-19 issues and injuries saw Benfica head coach Jorge Jesus forced to dig deep into his expensively-assembled squad. There were no fewer than seven changes to his line-up from the side which started the 3-3 draw between the teams in Lisbon - Jan Vertonghen, Rafa Silva, Everton and Haris Seferovic were the four survivors.
The perfect start
The visitors would have felt slightly stunned at finding themselves behind in the seventh minute, having actually started the match brightly and hemming Rangers into their own half with the intensity of their closing down play.
But the first time Gerrard’s side were able to venture forward with any intent, they fashioned a fine opening goal.
Arfield was in at the start and end of the move, his clever pass setting Ryan Kent surging clear down the right. The winger’s low cross fell invitingly for Borna Barisic whose first attempt to pick out a team-mate from the left was cut out.
But the Croatian left-back recycled possession and this time delivered a perfect cross. Kemar Roofe’s header was brilliantly saved by Helton Leite, then James Tavernier’s follow-up header struck the crossbar. It looked as if Rangers might have let the opportunity slip away but Arfield was there to pounce as his shot went through the legs of Benfica captain Jardel on its way to beating Leite.
It was a night when Rangers would find themselves in the unaccustomed position of being the counter-attacking side in a home fixture.
Benfica continued to dominate possession after falling behind but Rangers were generally as effective off the ball as they have been on it for much of the season.
Kamara typified the doggedness and intelligence of Rangers’ defensive work, the Finnish international delivering another eye-catching display as his value and reputation continues to be enhanced.
Benfica found clear-cut chances hard to come by, although Brazilian forward Everton should have done better than blaze a shot over from around 14 yards.
Allan McGregor, on a landmark evening for the veteran goalkeeper as he equalled former captain Barry Ferguson’s all-time European appearance record of 82 games, didn’t have a save to make in the first half - although he was only spared having to do so in the 45th minute by a superb recovery tackle from Leon Balogun just as Silva was poised to shoot from close range.
Rangers allowed their concentration levels to slip at a Benfica throw-in from the right three minutes into the second half and were fortunate not to be punished. Seferovic flicked the ball on to Luca Waldschmidt at the near post and the German striker wastefully flashed his volley wide.
The hosts soon steadied the ship again and settled into a similar pattern of play to the opening period, content to protect their lead and look to hit Benfica on the break when they could.
Roofe was screaming loudly for a penalty for handball against Vertonghen in the 63rd minute and may have had a case as his cross was blocked by the Belgian international defender.
But Roofe was celebrating six minutes later when he doubled Rangers’ lead. It was another well crafted goal, Barisic and Kamara combining cutely down the left to create some space. Barisic’s low ball inside found Roofe who dropped a shoulder before lashing a shot high beyond Leite from just outside the penalty area.
Another late show from Benfica
Rangers now looked to be in firm control but, frustratingly for Gerrard, hadn’t learned the lesson of Lisbon.
Benfica halved the deficit in the 78th minute with a messy goal from Rangers’ perspective, substitute Goncalo Ramos scrambling in a close range shot with the aid of a deflection off Tavernier.
Alfredo Morelos almost restored Rangers’ two-goal advantage when his shot was turned onto the bar by Leite but it was Benfica who struck again to equalise in the 81st minute. Again, Rangers’ previous defensive solidity deserted them in another goalmouth melee which this time saw Pizzi apply the finishing touch.
Rangers: McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Balogun, Barisic; Kamara, Davis, Arfield; Roofe, Morelos, Kent. Subs not used: McLaughlin, Bassey, Helander, Hagi, Itten, Barker, Stewart, Barjonas, Dickson, King.
Benfica: Leite, Gilberto (Ramos 69), Jardel, Vertonghen, Grimaldo; Silva, Gabriel, Chiquinho (Pizzi 56); Everton, Seferovic (Ferro 90+2), Waldschmidt (Goncalves 56). Subs not used: Svilar, Vlachodimos, Cervi, Bernardo, Araujo, Ferreira.