Steven Gerrard refused to criticise Alfredo Morelos and Jon Flanagan despite the dismissals which left Rangers’ Europa League hopes hanging in the balance.
The Ibrox side were forced to endure a nail-biting final 25 minutes after being reduced to nine men against Ufa in Russia but held on for a 1-1 draw which sealed a 2-1 aggregate win and a ticket to the group stage.
Morelos was dismissed having collected two quick-fire bookings for a petulant first-half outburst at German referee Tobias Stieler. Flanagan followed him down the tunnel after the break as he also picked up a pair of yellow cards.
But the Rangers manager said: “I’m not going to sit here and criticise the two red cards because those two players have helped us very much since I came in the door. We go up together and we go down together.
“I’m sure Jon and Alfredo will apologise to their team-mates but in terms of the nine men who were there from start to finish, I haven’t got words to describe them.
“Alfredo is an incredible footballer but he’s still a young footballer and I think it helps him that I’ve been a young footballer, someone who has made mistakes myself.
“The important thing is to learn as quick as you can. The same goes for Jon, he’s more experienced but should know better. But players don’t make mistakes on purpose. Sometimes the decisions were harsh and I thought in Alfredo’s case the decision was very harsh, so I feel for him. I’ve said before I love the player and I love the person but all my players need to learn quick that when you come away in Europe sometimes the decisions are not the same as domestically and we have to find some discipline because as a group ours hasn’t been good enough so far.”
Rangers claimed a precious away goal when Ovie Ejaria struck 10 minutes in but Dmitri Sysuev levelled for the hosts moments before Morelos’ red card. But Ufa could not make the most of their numerical advantage as Gerrard’s team dug in for a crucial result.
Rangers go into Friday’s Europa League draw after sealing their return to the main phase of a European competition for the first time since 2010. They are likely to be among the fourth seeds.
“My blood pressure has calmed down a bit now but the team don’t seem to want to do it the easy way,” admitted Gerrard. “They seem to be challenging certainly me as a manager when it comes down to heart pressure and grey hairs. But I’m so proud of the players tonight, an incredible achievement.
“I always had one eye on this moment because it was the first thing we could achieve as a group and the players deserve all the credit.”