Rangers progressed to the group stages of the Europa League by drawing 1-1 with Ufa in Russia to win the tie 2-1 on aggregate. The scoreline barely tells you anything about the drama which unfolded. Everything we’ve seen from the team in the past couple of months was evident as red cards, dogged defending and a determination not to lose got the result Rangers needed. Both bad and good luck had an impact on the proceedings. When the entire 8 matches of qualifying are considered, this was an outcome fully deserved by Gerrard’s team.
Rangers started the match with the same team that started the first leg. That meant a move back to the 4-3-3 which has suited them best so far this season. Ufa made a couple of changes, bringing in the more attack-minded Sysuyev and Vanek from the start, and moving Paurevic back into midfield.
The game started relatively slowly, with neither side really dominating possession. After only 9 minutes, everything changed. Morelos did well to hold up the ball and start a Rangers attack. A few passes around the box led to Kent feeding Flanagan on the run. His left-foot cross wasn’t great, but the clearance was poor, and Ejaria was quickest to read that. From the left-hand side of the box, he curled in a great finish with his right foot to give Rangers the away goal and real control of the tie.
Ufa looked to respond, and a poor moment from Flanagan led to the first yellow card of the match on 15 minutes. Rangers were clearly under pressure, but dealing with the threat well for the most part.
On 28 minutes, Ufa got a clear sight at goal. Igboun got clear and played a ball across the box. It fell to wing-back Zhivoglyadov in space in the box, but his shot was pulled and cleared by Goldson. The game was opening up, and 2 minutes later Ejaria almost added to his goal. He won the ball in the Ufa half and drove forward, feeding Morelos on the angle. The striker cut inside and played the ball back to Ejaria on the edge of the box. His shot was deflected just wide by a defender.
From that corner, Rangers conceded their first goal away from home in Europe this season. The ball was cleared, and as Rangers looked to get set up again, a ball over the top found Sysuyev. The striker looked offside, but no flag was forthcoming, and he was clean through. He made no mistake as he slotted past McGregor to make it 1-1 on the night.
Three minutes later, Sysuyev found space in the box after poor defending by Flanagan. His cutback was cleared by Goldson. It was evident that the Russian side were capable in attack, and Rangers were often resorting to last-ditch defending. Despite that, the Ibrox side would have felt relatively comfortable.
That feeling evaporated on the 36th minute. Morelos was unlucky to concede a foul on the counter-attack and kicked the ball away in frustration. The referee ran over to book him, with the striker annoyed by the decision. After some remonstrating yards away from the referee, the German official decided he’d had enough and produced a second yellow card to result in Morelos being sent off. It was a harsh red card, but that was of no consolation at all. Yet again, Rangers had to see out a match with 10 men.
Just before half time, Ufa created two good chances. The first saw Sysuyev get a shot away on the angle of the box which flashed wide. The striker then found some space in the area and crossed to the back post. It looked certain Igboun would score, but his header went into the side netting.
Rangers brought on Kyle Lafferty at half time for Daniel Candeias in an attempt to give the team a focal point up front. The first chance of the second half came from a counter attack out wide. Kent took a great touch on the halfway line and drove into the space ahead of him. Quick feet and great balance saw him make space in the box for a shot, but somehow Belenov got a hand to the deflected shot and put it out for a corner. It was a stunning save which kept Ufa in the tie.
Again, from the corner, Rangers were exposed on the counter-attack. A poor header by Jack on the edge of the Ufa box led to the Russians breaking at pace. A ball through sent Zhivoglyadov clear, but his shot was blazed over the bar.
The pattern of the match was clearly one where Ufa would have a lot of the ball, and Rangers would look to counter. Ryan Kent was doing well running at the Russian defence, but one chance was spurned as he never played the ball through to Lafferty when that was the best option. On 58 minutes, Ufa missed a great chance themselves. Katic was caught out through poor positioning, and substitute Oblyakov found loads of space 18 yards out. His shot hit the outside of the post in a real let-off for Rangers.
What was already a very difficult situation became even more so on 65 minutes. Jon Flanagan received his second yellow card, with the referee deeming his challenge to win the ball in the air overly aggressive. The decision again looked like a harsh one, but it left Rangers with 9 men. Ufa still required 2 goals, but they had plenty of time to create the chances.
With Rangers essentially playing a 5-3-0, Ufa saw almost all of the ball. The defence was clearing corners and free kicks, but there was no out ball to stop it coming straight back in. On the 73rd minute, Rangers got some luck as the ball fell to Igboun in the box, but he was on his heels and lost control of the ball. Three minutes later, McGregor was forced into a decent save from a Vanek shot from distance. Every goal kick was laboured, and the entire team was no further than 40 yards from their own goal. It was clear the last 15 minutes or so would feel like an eternity.
Allan McGregor made an outstanding save on 79 minutes. A good cross from the left was met by Igboun, who tried to head it back across the goalkeeper. McGregor was able to adjust and push the ball wide at full stretch to his left. For the next 10 minutes, Rangers defended strongly, and Ufa got impatient as long balls and crosses weren’t finding the mark.
The next real chance fell to Rangers. Some brilliant play by Ejaria saw him feed Ryan Kent on the run. The winger took on his man, but never caught his shot with the left foot correctly and it hit the near-post side-netting. From their next attack, Ufa hit the post with a header from Krotov and the ball spun clear.
Ufa thought they had scored a second in injury time as Tabidze rose to head home a corner. The referee was blowing for a foul on Ejaria as the ball was crossing the line. It looked like a poor decision, but it was the first that went the way of Rangers in that regard. The final whistle came 2 minutes later and the 9 men of Rangers were rewarded for all of their hard work.
Teams qualifying for the group stages who entered at the first qualifying round is a rare occurrence. Rangers became the first British side to do that, and nothing was easy throughout the run. This squad is built upon a foundation of determination and mental strength. Those were characteristics you never truly felt were evident in recent seasons. There’s definite ability there too, but in the space of around 8 weeks, Gerrard has built a team. They’re not reliant on individuals, they play for each other, and the manager clearly loves them. With the number of matches played in August, last season already feels like it was ages ago. Rangers fans should take a moment to remember the farces of the previous campaign when enjoying this moment as well. It puts into real perspective just how far things have progressed.
Belenov, Alikin (Oblyakov 52), Jokic, Salatic (Krotov 76), Sysuyev, Vanek, Zhivoglyadov, Paurevic, Nedelcearu, Igboun, Tabidze
SUBS: Sheliya, Carp, Zaseev, Tumasyan, Sukhov
McGregor, Tavernier, Katic, Goldson, Flanagan, Jack, Ejaria, Arfield (Halliday 70), Candeias (Lafferty 45), Kent, Morelos