Rangers survived a fraught evening with an excruciatingly tense finale to book their place in the third qualifying round of the Europa League and ensure the feelgood factor surrounding Steven Gerrard’s appointment as manager will continue into Sunday’s Premiership opener at Aberdeen.
Croatian defender Nikola Katic appeared to have seen off the challenge of his compatriots Osijek when he doubled Rangers’ aggregate lead eight minutes into the second half but an 89th minute strike from the visitors’ captain Borna Barisic left the visitors needing just one more goal to win the tie on away goals.
It was the first goal Rangers have conceded under Gerrard but they held out to secure a meeting with Maribor in the next round. They will need to raise their performance levels significantly if they hope to go all the way to the group stage but, for now, Gerrard can be satisfied that a sense of momentum has been maintained.
While Katic claimed his first competitive goal for Rangers, their real hero on the night was Allan McGregor. He produced many memorable and crucial performances in Europe during his first spell at the club and it soon became clear he would need to be at his best on this occasion to defy Osijek’s efforts to overturn their first leg deficit.
But for the Scotland international ‘keeper, Rangers’ 1-0 lead would have been wiped out before half-time as he made three outstanding saves in the opening 45 minutes.
It was a landmark evening for McGregor as he made his 48th European appearance for Rangers, a new club record for a goalkeeper as he eclipsed the previous mark set by Stefan Klos.
The 36-year-old’s return this summer has been warmly welcomed by the Rangers support who were grateful for his presence as the Croatians looked to impose themselves on Gerrard’s men.
The home side started well enough and could have made life much easier for themselves after just three minutes when Lassana Coulibaly was unable to react quickly enough to convert a well delivered corner from Ryan Kent, stabbing the ball over from close range.
A fine through ball from Ryan Jack then sent Alfredo Morelos clear, the Colombian striker forcing a decent save from Osijek ‘keeper Marko Malenica. But that vibrant opening from Rangers subsided all too quickly for Gerrard’s liking as the visitors started to look increasingly dangerous.
McGregor made his first telling contribution in the 18th minute when he kept out a powerful shot from the lively Robert Mudrazija. Osijek grew in confidence and it needed a superbly timed tackle inside the penalty are from Coulibaly to deny Mudrazija another sight of goal two minutes later.
Rangers were struggling to make the most of their own possession in the attacking third with the final pass or cross lacking precision or conviction.
On-loan Liverpool midfielder Ovie Ejaria was especially culpable of wastefulness in the final third.
Osijek increased the tempo of their own work as half-time approached and Rangers found themselves under more and more pressure. They had McGregor to thank again when he made a superb double save in the 38th minute.
After diving to his left to turn away a curling shot from Nigerian forward Ezekiel Henty, the Rangers number one had to scramble to his feet quickly before getting into position to block Petar Bockaj’s stinging drive at his left hand post.
The edginess in Rangers’ play would have been a concern for Gerrard as he made his way to the dressing room for his interval debrief and his players duly reappeared with a greater sense of purpose after the break.
Coulibaly, quickly earning the admiration of the Rangers fans with the boundless energy he applied to both his defensive and attacking duties, sparked what proved to be a telling burst of pressure in the 52nd minute.
The Mali international midfielder surged down the right and whipped over a cross to the far post, finding Kent whose close range shot was well blocked by Osijek full-back Alen Grgic.
Rangers remained on the front foot, quickly earning a free-kick which James Tavernier curled into the box.
Malenica’s attempt to punch it to safety was unconvincing and as Osijek struggled to clear their lines, Morelos was quickest to react as he headed the ball back across the six yard box where Katic rose to get a crucial touch and steer it into the net.
Gerrard’s fist-pumping celebration on the touchline underlined just how crucial the goal was in terms of easing the strain on his team and putting them firmly in control of the tie.
Rangers made their first change of the evening with 15 minutes remaining, Coulibaly leaving the field to a warm ovation as he was replaced by Scott Arfield.
There was a chance for Katic to put Rangers out of sight of their visitors when he was picked out by a Kent corner but this time he flicked his header wide of Malenica’s right hand post.
Osijek’s ambition had not been doused and they gave themselves a chance of late salvation when Barisic equalised in the 89th minute. McGregor made another stunning save to keep out a Mudrazija shot but was left helpless when Barisic’s follow-up effort beat him at his right hand post with the aid of a deflection.
Four minutes of stoppage time left a lot of frayed nerves in the Ibrox stands but Rangers saw it out.
Rangers: McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Katic, Flanagan; Jack, Coulibaly (Arfield 75); Candeias (Windass 85), Ejaria (Halliday 90+2), Kent; Morelos. Subs not used: Alnwick, Murphy, Sadiq, Middleton.
Osijek: Malenica, Grigic, Tomelin, Skoric, Barisic; Mioc (Pilj 80), Mudrazija; Henty, Hajradinovic, Bockaj (Sorsa 66); Maric (Strkalj 66). Subs not used: Santini, Loncar, Kamenar, Simunec.