Rangers 3 - 1 Maribor: James Tavernier plays captain’s role

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Rangers’ own remainers ensured that Steven Gerrard’s
side will have a great deal to take into the decisive leg of their Europa League third-round qualifier in Slovenia next week after an utterly enthralling victory at Ibrox last night.

Two of the only three players in the starting line-up to have pre-dated Gerrard netted, in the form of Alfredo Morelos and James Tavernier – on the day the club rejected a £2 million bid from West Bromwich Albion for the latter.

Rangers' James Tavernier scores his side's second goal from the penalty spot. Picture: Jeff Holmes/PA Wire

Rangers' James Tavernier scores his side's second goal from the penalty spot. Picture: Jeff Holmes/PA Wire

It was another of what might be termed the old guard, substitute Jamie Murphy, who provided the cross for Lassana Coulibaly to head in a third that gives Rangers a huge opportunity to progress to a winnable play-off tie.

The 3-1 victory was earned through this new-look team showing different facets of its character. The concession of an equaliser towards the interval through Mitja Viler brought fears Rangers were losing their grip on an encounter in which they were coughing up regular chances.

However, whatever Gerrard said to his side at half-time, they demonstrated courage and valour to remain true to their game. And a penalty won by the doggedness of Morelos, and converted with aplomb by Tavernier, was the catalyst 
for a second-half display that was deserving of more than Coulibaly’s late effort.

Alas, the remainers among the club’s support sullied the evening by celebrating the third by remaining true to their sectarian strain in their vituperations towards the Pope. Rangers as a team may move on but some within their followers simply cannot.

There was no mistaking that the line-up sent out by Gerrard last night was his team, his new Rangers. On the day that two regulars from the Ibrox line-up of last season – Josh Windass and Declan John – were sold, the home XI contained eight of his signings.

Tavernier, who remained at Ibrox despite significant interest from West Brom on England’s transfer deadline day, was joined by other survivors from last season in Morelos and Daniel Candeias. In the case of the Colombian striker, there were hysterical predictions that he could be shunned, and shunted, by Gerrard in the immediate aftermath of his kick-out at Scott McKenna that earned a red card at Aberdeen on Sunday.

An act of moody petulance whatever the provocation, the decision to downgrade the act to a yellow and Gerrard’s defence of the 22-year-old’s temperamental streak, meant the liability narrative for Morelos was suddenly parked once more.

Just in time, indeed, for the forward to last night remind that he also can prove a 
precious asset. He capped a whirlwind start that seemed to have the Slovenians entirely
disorientated when he gobbled up a right-place, right-time box-lurker’s goal after a driving run through the middle by Scott Arfield. He laid it off into the path of Ryan Kent, whose low shot seemed to draw a fine block by Jasmin Handanovic – apart from the fact that the keeper shoved it towards his back post, where Morelos was on hand to bundle in the opener.

This seemed to give Rangers, who continued to take the game to their opponents, the perfect platform to build the desired first-leg lead. Not least because this new Rangers have also been showing themselves as sturdy where the old version were soft.

But as Maribor began to menace, and menace with ever greater frequency as attacking midfielder Amir Derisevic became a danger who could not be quelled, the Ibrox backline started to exhibit the flaws all too often witnessed in previous Rangers incarnations.

The first danger signal arrived in the form of a long-range sighter from Aleks Phlier after he was allowed to step forward without impediment. It was a sighter that goalkeeper Allan McGregor didn’t seem to catch good sight of with his awkward positioning seeing the ball bounce dangerously, before it was turned away as the threat remained.

The openness of the encounter that initially seemed to favour Gerrard’s men suddenly began to increase the fretfulness around Ibrox. The defensive pairing of Connor Goldson and Nikola Katic that has earned so many plaudits in these early weeks of the season was exposing McGregor, who had to drop sharply down to his right to push away a raking effort by Derisevic, before the follow-up was blocked.

The pattern continued. Rangers would make forays up the field but always seemed vulnerable to counters and balls in and around their area. Twice the white-shirted figures of Maribor defenders were presented with free headers that they entirely squandered. These two moments which caused an eerie silence to envelop the stadium came either side of a moment the home denizens were dreading but probably had a sinking feeling was in the post.

Yet, there was nothing predictable about the exquisite touch and technique that allowed Viler to send a sumptuous first-time dipping volley high into the net from an angle wide on the left.

It seemed then that Rangers were on the rack. Instead, with their ability to show the character for which Gerrard the player was renowned during a second period that demonstrated they are made of stern stuff, that is where they have placed Maribor.