Rangers drew 0-0 with Maribor in Slovenia to progress to the playoff round of qualification for the Europa League. With key players unavailable, a disciplined and organised display was augmented by the required luck at this level to see the team go through. Over the two legs, Rangers deserved the result. The team overcame the difference in experience with the ability and hard work. This Maribor side has played together for years, yet the clear coaching influence on the Rangers players made them look like the settled side.
Rangers were forced into changes from the first leg with Flanagan suspended and Coulibaly injured. Halliday started at left back, and Ryan Jack came into the side. Jamie Murphy retained his place in the side, with Ryan Kent on the bench. Maribor changed their team from the first leg also, with Mesanovic and Hotic starting to offer more of an attacking threat.
On paper, Rangers were playing a 4-5-1 with Murphy and Candeias wide. In reality, it was Arfield and Ejaria who were tasked with dealing with the Maribor full-backs when they got forward. The aforementioned wide players were tucked in, almost man-marking the Maribor central midfielders. It was clear that Rangers were set up to be hard to break down, and offer a counter-attacking threat.
The match started slowly, with no real chances being created by either side. Rangers were struggling to get forward but looked comfortable on the ball in deeper areas. On 18 minutes, that almost came unstuck, as Tavernier played a loose ball which put Jack in some trouble. Tavares was able to pick up the ball in space and drive at the defence. From around 25 yards, he struck a powerful left-foot shot which McGregor punched clear.
Luka Zahovic should have done better with a chance minutes later as he dragged a shot wide from the edge of the area. Maribor were clearly in control of possession and dictating the tempo. Dangerous set-pieces from Dervisevic were pinning Rangers back, despite the strong defending. When Rangers did break forward, it was difficult to get enough players up in support of Morelos.
Rangers best chance of the half came from a set-piece. A great ball in by Tavernier found the head of Connor Goldson, but he found himself just in front of the ball and couldn’t direct the header on target.
The next notable chance from Maribor also came from a free-kick. From deep on the left, it looked certain Dervisevic would play the ball into the box. Allan McGregor was a few yards off his line in anticipation of the cross. Instead, the midfielder hit a left-foot shot towards the near post, and McGregor did well to get across and push it wide.
In the last few minutes of the half, both sides had good chances to score. Maribor got through when Nikola Katic was caught out trying to win the ball. With options wide, Vrhovec shot from 18 yards, but it went straight at McGregor. At the other end, with just a minute of the half to go, A Tavernier set piece caused some issues, and the ball dropped to Arfield just inside the box. His first touch didn’t quite put the ball where he wanted, and he had to toe-poke a shot under pressure which went over the bar.
Rangers made a bit of a change to their tactics in the second half to try and influence the match more in an attacking sense. Jamie Murphy had been marking Dervisevic but was freed up to play closer to Morelos. The team looked a little more secure in possession, and Candeias found himself running at the Maribor defence only a few minutes into the half. His shot was straight at the goalkeeper, however.
Maribor were getting more men forward, and the space given to Dervisevic allowed him to pick passes from deep. One chance led to Hotic finding space in the Rangers box after an overload on their right-hand side. Goldson was able to get across to block the shot, and the ball was eventually cleared.
Alfredo Morelos put in a great shift up front and found some space wide on 55 minutes. With Candeias and Murphy running beyond him, he played a great ball through the defence which found the Scottish wide man. His first touch took him a little wider than he wanted to be, and he skewed a shot across goal.
Maribor created some half chances in the 10 minutes that followed but were unable to hit the target with any of them. The best came from a corner, where Vrhovec met the ball but his header went over the bar. Rangers were defending in numbers and making the game very difficult for Maribor. Allan McGregor was frustrating the home crowd by taking his time with goal kicks, which led to some objects being thrown at him.
With around 20 minutes of the game to go, Maribor got their best chance to score. A ball in from their right-hand side fell to Tavares in space inside the six-yard box. He took a second to bring the ball down and smashed a low shot at goal. Somehow, Allan McGregor saved with his right foot by making himself as big as possible. It was a stunning save, and seemed to break the spirit of the Maribor side.
The game became somewhat fractious from there. Goldson was caught late by an elbow from Zahovic, and reacted angrily. The Maribor players tried to wind up Alfredo Morelos, and the striker stood up to the nonsense without overreacting. This all suited Rangers as they looked to play out the match.
Maribor were given a potential lifeline on 90 minutes. Connor Goldson won the ball with a tackle, but also caught Zahovic. It was a dubious penalty, but the referee awarded it, and Tavares stepped up to take it. With 4 minutes of injury time left, a goal would have led to a very nervous finish. Instead, he blasted his penalty down the middle, and the foot of McGregor deflected the ball clear.
Rangers saw out the match from there with no issues. Connor Goldson almost scored a late goal as he ran forward from defence and shot wide from outside the box.
In certain matches, you have to ask players to do a job they may not like to get the result you need. Gerrard asked the team to do just that, and they responded excellently. Allan McGregor made 2 great saves and denied Tavares at the penalty, but there was a feeling throughout that Rangers were comfortable. McGregor, Goldson, Katic, Jack and Morelos were particularly impressive, but every player deserved praise for their performance.
Rangers now go into the play-off round to face Russian side FC Ufa. There’s no doubt it will be a tricky tie, but both Osijek and Maribor are stronger sides than the Russians, so Rangers can be confident going into the matches.
McGregor; Tavernier, Goldson, Katic, Halliday, Jack, Arfield, Ejaria (Kent, 68), Candeias, Murphy (McCrorie, 76), Morelos.
SUBS NOT USED: Foderingham, Sadiq, Hodson, Kelly, Middleton.
Handanovic, Kilnar (Pihler, 52), Suler, Vrhovec, Tavares, Hotc, Zahovic, Dervisevic (Vrsic, 73), Mesanovic (Mlakar, 79), Viler, Ivkovic.
SUBS NOT USED: Piric, Cretu, Bajde, Uskokovic.