Rangers started their European campaign with a 2-0 win over Shkupi at Ibrox. It was a frustrating performance in many ways, but more than solid enough to give the team a good lead going into the second leg. Shkupi aimed to keep the score down and disrupt the match. Goals from Jamie Murphy and a late James Tavernier penalty were the least Rangers deserved.
Rangers started the match with the same team which lined up against Bury. With Candeias in midfield and Windass wide right, much of the attacking threat would be seen on that side of the pitch. Goldson and Katic continued their defensive partnership, with Flanagan at left back. Shkupi played something of a 4-5-1. Striker Blazhe Ilijoski was very isolated up front.
The first chance of the match came from some determined play by Tavernier. His cross was blocked, but he won the ball back high up the pitch and it broke to Candeias. His cross was parried by the goalkeeper just in front of Morelos, and Murphy couldn’t turn the rebound into the net. Minutes later, good play on the right saw Windass flick a lovely ball into the path of Tavernier. His low cross for Morelos was cut out by the goalkeeper.
Shkupi created their only chance of the half on the break. A cut back to Ljamcevski saw the midfielder hit the bar with an effort from 20 yards. It was a reminder that the game wasn’t as straightforward as it seemed.
On the 23rd minute, Rangers took the lead. Windass tracked back to win the ball near the byline, and his clearance was won by Tavernier. Some link up between him and Candeias sent the full back free, and he got the ball to Murphy. From just outside the box, Murphy drove at the defence, and hit a left foot shot from 8 yards which looped off the goalkeeper’s foot and into the net.
Rangers tried to apply real pressure for the rest of the half. With the crowd in fine voice, a number of chances were spurned. A Tavernier free kick was knocked across goal by Katic. Windass done well to win the header, but the goalkeeper made a great save and the ball was eventually cleared for a corner.
From the corner, the ball was worked back out to Murphy, but his cross was a little too long. Morelos chased the ball down, brilliantly turned the full back, and his driven cross was headed over by Windass. Jon Flanagan saw a deflected effort excellently saved not long after that.
The best chance to increase the lead fell to Morelos. He started the move from deep, and got into the box as Tavernier played a great cross. Under a little bit of pressure, Morelos got caught under the ball and headed over.
A couple of minutes into the second half, the game was stopped for an injury to a Shkupi player. Candeias picked up a booking, which instantly saw Ryan Jack asked to warm up.
It was clear the Macedonian side were looking to be disruptive in the second half. They did have a brief spell of pressure, winning 3 corners of which one was flicked over the bar. That aside, they were time wasting and looking to wind up the players and crowd.
The tempo of the match had slowed, and as such Rangers weren’t creating quite as many chances. Josh Windass was the player on the end of most of the attacking play. He didn’t quite connect with a header from a Tavernier free kick, and it was easily saved. His next header, from a great Tavernier cross, should have hit target, but went just over the bar. He then missed the ball by inches on the stretch after a shot was dragged across goal by Katic.
Alfredo Morelos worked hard and linked up pretty well, but the ball never really got in front of him for a decent chance in the second half. He saw a shot from a tight angle turned over the bar. Around this time, the Shkupi players were targeting him for abuse and gamesmanship, and he picked up a yellow card.
From there, Rangers toiled a little, but had 3 claims for a penalty. The first saw Ejaria drive into the box, and replays suggest he was fouled. Morelos was held in the box trying to win the ball, but his somewhat theatrical reaction meant the referee was unconvinced. The last claim resulted in a penalty, and came from some link up on the right.
Tavernier and Jack linked up, and the latter forced a mistake from the Shkupi defender. Jack’s ball into Murphy saw the winger fouled after he took a touch, and a penalty awarded. With injury time just beginning, Tavernier sent the goalkeeper the wrong way to make it 2-0.
There was enough time for one last chance from Rangers. Middleton made a great run on the left and played the ball to Ejaria. The midfielder beat his man, drove towards goal and cut the ball back. Murphy was able to get a toe to it, but the shot went straight to the keeper.
The heightened expectations and excitement meant that the nature of this match felt like a disappointment. There were positives to take, but as Gerrard said after the match, it was only satisfactory. The team needs more matches and time together to get things right. Despite that, a 2-0 lead is usually a strong one in Europe. The second leg will need focus and a good performance, and that may benefit the team in the long term.
McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Katic, Flanagan, McCrorie, Arfield (Ejaria, 67), Candeias (Jack 56), Murphy, Windass (Middleton, 79) Morelos.
SUBS: Alnwick, John, Halliday, Docherty, .
Zendeli, Tipuric, Bajrami (Bilali, 45), Ljamchevski (Shabani, 60), Muarem, Broja, Owono (Krivanjeva, 90), Ilijoski, Vujcic, Stojkoski, Adem.
SUBS: Aleksovski, Veliu, Ismaili.