NEW manager. New players. New strip. New start. Ibrox crackled with expectation last night as the Rangers supporters ushered in the Steven Gerrard era, with 50,000 eager punters hoping the former Liverpool legend’s new broom can sweep away the lingering stench of the last two seasons of turmoil.
It may have been the first qualifying round to reach the Europa League against unknown minnows FK Shkupi, but you would have been forgiven for thinking you had stumbled into one of the old Champions League nights when the giants of European football came to Govan.
The blue and, erm, mandarin sea of Ibrox rocked to its foundations as Gerrard emerged from the tunnel to a rapturous reception, with a huge display adorning the entire Broomloan Road end, and the visitors even obliging by performing a pre-match huddle to crank the decibel level up further.
A bright early start brought yet more bellowing from the crowd, but the air was nearly sucked clean out of the Rangers balloon as James Tavernier was caught out of position, allowing Blagoja Ljamchevski to graze the top of Allan McGregor’s crossbar.
Nerves were settled though when Jamie Murphy collected Tavernier’s pass and cut inside before getting a shot away that Shkupi keeper Suat Zendeli could only help on its way into the net. Not the prettiest goal you will ever see, but a thing of beauty for the Ibrox legions. Gerrard had his first goal as Rangers boss and was off and running.
It wasn’t entirely out with the old though, and there were more than a few nervous moments along the way on a night when Rangers showed plenty of promise going forward, but still exhibited some of their old defensive frailties. That is to be expected at this stage in the team’s progression, with players clearly still trying to get to grips with what their new manager expects from them.
Josh Windass, for instance, looked slightly lost out on the right, while Daniel Candeias was also a little like a fish out of water tucking inside from what used to be his station out wide. Of the five players making their bow, Nikola Katic and Connor Goldson showed some promising signs of a blossoming partnership at the heart of the defence, but both didn’t look entirely comfortable passing the ball out from the back. It is far too early to be judging players of course, with Jon Flanagan in particular looking short of match fitness, but such is the harsh nature of these early qualifying rounds that no one is given the luxury of bedding in.
With that in mind, it would be harsh to criticise the rather lacklustre start to the second half too strongly, and the introduction of Ryan Jack for Candeias cranked the home side into gear once more.
Windass should have scored when presented with a free header from a Tavernier cross, before Jack’s centre across the six-yard box just evaded his desperate lunge.
The burgeoning sense of optimism that permeated the old ground prior to kick-off was now slowly being encroached upon by one or two moans and groans as all too often passes failed to find their mark. There was an imbalance to the shape of the side with two right-footers operating off the left, with the play all too often being directed into Macedonian traffic.
Another new face appeared in the shape of Liverpool loanee Ovie Ejaria to try and inject a bit of fizz back into proceedings, but the ironic cheers that greeted Windass’s departure for Glenn Middleton shortly afterwards threatened to sour things once more.
The former Norwich City youngster kept the crowd sweet though by throwing himself straight into the action, his direct running down the left lifting Rangers’ tails once more.
A wail for a penalty by the out of sorts Alfredo Morelos rather summed up his evening in that he was on a different wavelength from most of his teammates, who ignored the appeal along with the referee.
As time ebbed away though, Rangers would get their chance from the spot after all, with Murphy getting his toe to the ball ahead of Amir Bilali and being sent crashing to the turf. Tavernier assumed responsibility in his first competitive match as club captain and made no mistake as the clock ticked onto the 90th minute.
Suddenly, all was right with the world again. No one from the old guard that Travelled to Luxembourg with a single goal lead had to tell the new order how dangerous that slender advantage can be, and the celebrations on the park and in the stands told the story of how crucial a moment the second goal may be in the tie.
So, a satisfactory result with enough hints of promise of what may be to come, but with plenty still to be worked on to keep things interesting. In the end, without being electrifying, Gerrard’s first outing had the Ibrox stands sparking once more.
Source : HeraldScotland