Rangers kept the highest scorers in the competition at bay, with surprise inclusion George Edmundson shining at centre half next to the similarly excellent Connor Goldson. But they passed up chance after chance at the other end, including a penalty from Ianis Hagi – their sixth miss from ten attempts this season.
Ryan Kent spurned an earlier opportunity but made up for that while also repaying a significant portion of his £7m transfer fee with the goal that meant Braga had to score twice in the last half an hour. They could not even strike once as Rangers became the first team to prevent the hosts from scoring in the Europa League this season.
A more impressive boast is becoming the first Scottish side to win both legs of a knockout European tie since Celtic managed this feat against Blackburn Rovers in 2002. But Rangers had to make it hard for themselves.
Hagi is the latest Rangers player to fail from the spot. It surely left Gerrard wanting to bang his head off the cliff face that looms over one end of this very special stadium.
Gerrard’s solution to Rangers’ recent defensive woes was to drop a 23-year-old centre half and replace him with an even more callow 22-year-old with just eleven appearances to his name this season. It was certainly drastic. Some might say foolhardy. Edmundson recovered from a slightly shaky start to vindicate his manager’s decision to drop Nikola Katic.
Super Bock is the local beer brand that helped fuel many of the 4,000 Rangers fans inside the Braga Municipal stadium. A super block is what threatened their team’s prospects. Hagi’s failure to score from the spot was more about Matheus’ tremendously agile save than the midfielder’s own deficiencies. Rangers had other moments. Huge, potentially decisive moments. Florian Kamberi’s maddening tendency to stray offside is a familiar trait from his Hibs days. It was on display again here.
Edmundson, meanwhile, looked understandably nervous at first. His first involvement, in the opening minute, was to attempt an ill-advised pass into midfield rather than simply clear his lines.
The pitch was slippery in these opening minutes having been well watered. It was an additional challenge for Edmundson, who lost his footing on at least one occasion. But Rangers steadied themselves and sought to cause some problems themselves. This had been Gerrard’s pre-match promise. They were not here to simply attempt to hold out for a draw. They knew an away goal would leave Braga in a very tricky position.
Rangers might have had two in the opening 20 minutes. That they did not succeed with at least one of these glaring chances will be a source of huge frustration. This is before even mentioning another missed penalty.
Kamberi spurned the first opportunity on his full debut for the club. A Kent through ball from just inside his own half saw Rangers break through Braga’s high defensive line and leave them with a two-on-one situation. No one seemed to quite believe it, including Scott Arfield who elected to pass to his left for Kamberi when he might have taken on the shot himself.
Still, the striker should have been able to beat Matheus from his admittedly slightly tighter ankle. His effort was tame and the ‘keeper was able to block with just nine minutes on the clock.
A perhaps better chance followed ten minutes later after good work from Hagi left Kent with the task of steering into the far corner from around 12 yards out. The winger did not wrap his foot around the ball enough and his shot swept past the post.
Braga began to respond but it was never the sort of incessant pressure Rangers had surely expected. The hosts swung the ball from side to side nicely enough but lacked a clinical edge. McGregor tipped a Paulinho header over the bar and that was the closest Braga came to scoring until the same player hit the post in the second half. Reaching half-time still on level terms was an achievement in itself but out of nowhere the visitors were handed the chance to head to the dressing room in front.
A Kent corner deflected off Raul Silva’s hand and Swedish referee Andreas Ekberg pointed instantly to the spot. There was the need for a delay before the award could be confirmed as VAR was put into operation for the first time in the tie. A large screen position half-way up the cliff face behind Matheus’ goal relayed the message that the check was over. There was no obvious reason to overturn the referee’s decision.
Of course, all the hanging around did not help Hagi, the latest in a seemingly endless cycle of players charged with solving Rangers’ penalty crisis. His effort was well struck but Matheus made a brilliant leap to his right to turn the ball behind for a corner. There was no time to take it.
Steven Davis consoled Hagi as the players left the field for half-time. It was still 0-0 and Rangers remained on course. Their cause was greatly enhanced when Kent sprinted clear after Hagi’s through ball to convert from a tight angle a far harder chance than the one he wasted in the first half.