Rangers will have to pass one more test of the defensive resilience instilled in them by Steven Gerrard in order to clear the final hurdle between them and the Europa League group stage.
Connor Goldson scored the only goal of a tense first leg of their play-off round tie against a moderate but obdurate Ufa side. The 4600-mile round trip to central Russia next week will be undertaken with caution but also a quiet confidence by Gerrard’s men who have already proved adept at keeping clean sheets on their travels this season.
There was an element of frustration for Rangers in being unable to add to Goldson’s first half goal with even the introduction of Kyle Lafferty, the day after his return to the club from Hearts, failing to help them breach the Ufa rearguard again.
Goldson’s breakthrough strike four minutes before the interval was a reward for honest toil rather than sparkling dominance from Rangers. They controlled possession for much of the first half and could not be faulted for a lack of attacking purpose but found their well-drilled opponents a frustrating proposition.
It might have been a less strenuous affair for Gerrard’s men had they been able to convert one of the early opportunities which came their way.
Ufa ‘keeper Aleksandr Belenov, unconvincing when he chose to punch clear a James Tavernier free-kick, reacted well to touch Daniel Candeias’ follow-up shot over in the second minute.
Candeias then delivered an inviting cross which Alfredo Morelos should have made more of, the striker skewing his header over. Morelos managed to get his next attempt on target, when he got on the end of Goldson’s long through ball, but was unable to get enough power on his header this time which allowed Belenov to make a fairly comfortable save low to his left.
After that early burst of urgency from Rangers, the match slipped into something of a lull which suited Ufa’s game plan perfectly as they looked to break up play and slow the tempo whenever possible.
The hosts burst into meaningful life again when Scott Arfield and Ryan Kent linked up well down the left, only for the promising move to be halted by Ionut Nedelcearu’s foul on Morelos just outside the penalty area. Tavernier’s free-kick did not trouble Belenov who made a routine save.
There much an onus on Kent to provide penetration down the left for Rangers in the absence of long-term injury victim Jamie Murphy and the Liverpool loanee linked well with Jon Flanagan in the 31st minute to stretch the Ufa defence and create a chance for Ovie Ejaria whose shot was blocked.
As Rangers tried to move through the gears once more, Tavernier carved out another presentable chance for Morelos but he glanced his header wide of Belenov’s right hand post.
There was a danger of the hosts becoming bogged down but their persistence finally bore fruit when Goldson put them in front. Kent forced a corner on the left which he took himself, his excellent delivery finding Morelos around eight yards out. When Belenov could only parry his header, Goldson reacted quickest to stab in the loose ball from close range.
The celebrations which greeted the goal were almost cut short from the restart when Ufa threatened an immediate leveller. Allan McGregor, maintaining his exceptional form for Rangers in this tournament so far this season, made another outstanding save to keep out Dmitri Zhivoglyadov’s powerful right foot shot after the home defence had been caught flat-footed.
Ufa, suddenly shaken from their defensive shackles, came close again when their Croatian midfielder Ivan Paurevic shot narrowly over. It was an indication they would be proactive in their pursuit of an away goal.
There was a renewed intensity to Rangers’ work at the start of the second half and Ufa were once again forced onto the back foot. Arfield, a driving presence in midfield for Gerrard’s side, saw a shot blocked, then Morelos turned cleverly onto a Tavernier pass to carve out an opening for himself which he pulled just wide of Belenov’s left hand post.
The comfort of a second goal continued to prove elusive and Rangers made their first change of the night with 21 minutes remaining, Lafferty receiving a rousing welcome from the home support as he made his second ‘debut’ for the club as a replacement for Candeias..
The big striker perhaps had just too much adrenaline pumping through his veins, however, as he picked up a booking just three minutes after entering the fray when he was penalised for a high challenge on Vero Salatic.
If a 1-0 lead was perhaps a little less than Gerrard and Rangers had hoped for, they were grateful to hold onto it in the closing stages. Substitute Catalin Carp saw a close range volley saved by McGregor, before Paurevic slid the ball wide from close range in stoppage time as a late show of ambition from Ufa threatened to alter the complexion of the tie.
RANGERS: McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Katic, Flanagan; Jack, Arfield, Ejaria; Candeias (Lafferty 69), Morelos, Kent (Middleton 77). Subs not used: Foderingham, Wallace, Sadiq, Halliday, McCrorie.
UFA: Belenov, Zhivoglyadov, Tabidze, Nedelcearu, Alikin; Salatic, Zaseev (Vanek 85), Jokic; Paurevic, Igboun (Krotov 90+2), Oblyakov (Carp 83). Subs not used: Sheliya, Sysuev, Tumasyan, Sukhov.