Rangers took what proved to be faltering steps back into Europe last night and have just a slim one-goal lead to protect in Luxembourg next week.
Kenny Miller’s first-half goal was not the first of many, as most here had imagined. Instead it remains all that separates Rangers and their opponents, who celebrated such a respectable defeat as though having secured a maiden victory in Europe.
The signs on the puddle-strewn M8 read: Yellow Warning. These were references to the heavy rain, which had made driving conditions treacherous. Rangers fans travelling to the match had hoped this message wouldn’t have further relevance, given the opposition were resplendent in yellow shirts.
There were some understandable first night nerves after such a long absence from the European stage. But Progres Niederkorn were not quite stuffy enough to represent a yellow peril to Rangers, who flung off some initial sluggishness to get the first part of the job done.
A win is a win after all. But no one could interpret this narrow victory over a team from Luxembourg with no European pedigree to speak of as anything other than an underwhelming return to the arena for Rangers.
This bore all the hallmarks of a first pre-season game; poor first touches, misplaced passes and a general lack of synergy bedevilled the home side.
The opposition actually appeared to play as more of a unit but only because they were packed into one area of the pitch. It was a game played almost exclusively in the Luxembourg side’s half in the first 45 minutes.
The away side showed more ambition in the second half – winning a first corner for example. Or at least they were allowed to show ambition by a Rangers defence that despite including new centre-half Fabio Cardoso, could still look suspect against such European minnows.
The Pedro Caixinha revolution is still taking shape but it was still surprising that Cardoso was one of only three new signings to start last night; Daniel Candeias, recruited from Benfica, replaced Jason Holt in the second-half. Alfredo Morelos, whose reputation for goal-scoring in Finland has helped catch the imagination of the Rangers supporters, appeared to loud cheers after 75 minutes. The striker was sent on for Martyn Waghorn, one of those ensuring Rangers looked a lot more familiar than many of the home fans expected – or, perhaps, wanted.
While the home team made hard work of the opening half an hour there seemed little prospect of Progres Niederkorn holding out for 90 minutes given Rangers’ dominance.
Around 30 supporters sitting in the away corner wished it would be otherwise. But Miller’s 37th-minute goal wrecked the away team’s plan to test the home fans’ patience by withstanding Rangers’ pressure until half-time, at least.
It had seemed possible they might achieve the first objective. For all their possession, Rangers suffered for a problem that hampered their progress last season: a lack of cutting edge.
Miller’s goal, swept in from around 12 yards, got him up and running for yet another season and broke the deadlock. It was Rangers’ first goal in European competition since Carlos Bocanegra scored a late equaliser against Maribor in a Europa League qualifier in August 2011.
Rangers had been knocking on the door from soon after Progres got the game underway by kicking off. The noise that greeted this symbolic moment was impressive.
It must have been an important occasion because Dave King, the Rangers owner, was present. He made his way to the side of the pitch and stressed the need for Rangers’ fans to “protect the club’s image” via a microphone before the game. The supporters complied with this request for the most part, although there was a brief stoppage in the first-half due to the amount of scrunched up paper balls being flung into the opposition goalmouth from the Broomloan stand.
Those in this part of the ground were being treated to almost constant Rangers traffic coming towards them; Ryan Jack should have marked his debut with a goal early on but was closed down as he tried to switch the ball from his right foot to left.
Niko Kranjcar, meanwhile, is like a new signing for Rangers. He was conspicuous in the early stages as he prodded and probed in midfield, displaying the kind of class the home fans hope can be enjoyed for longer than just a few weeks this time around. But he, too, should have scored from a header he managed to direct high and wide after James Tavernier’s deep cross.
Kranjcar was involved in Rangers’ opener, accepting Miller’s short free-kick before transferring the ball back to his team-mate, who finished with the aplomb we have come to except. This might be a new Rangers but some things never change.
Kranjcar was replaced to a huge ovation after 67 minutes. He will be expected to deliver against better opposition than last night in the months ahead. So, too, will his team-mates. But first comes next week’s second leg, which is now more perilous than it ought to be.