RUSSIAN opposition has provided some of Rangers’ best and worst days. From a first meeting against Muscovite opposition in the 3-2 win in Barcelona in May 1972 which saw them lift their only piece of European silverware, to Manchester a decade ago where Zenit St Petersburg inflicted a 2-0 defeat on Walter Smith’s side in the final of this competition, Rangers’ meetings with Mother Russia have seen their followers experience the full gamut of emotions. Last night, the second Russian team Rangers have faced in this year’s tournament after their narrow qualifying victory over Ufa, was no different. Instead of the three points which seemed there for the taking, frustration was the dominant theme as the Ibrox side ended up with just one to add to their tally. But what were the main talking points and what did we learn from last night’s encounter at Ibrox?
Unbeaten in ten European matches before last night, racking up No 11 saw Steven Gerrard’s class of 2018 surpass the record of the legends of the club’s run to the brink of European glory in 1992-93. While Steven Gerrard was at pains to downplay that comparison, not least because the standard of opposition in the Europa League qualifying round isn’t exactly of the same calibre, few around this stadium were left in breathless celebration when the final whistle sounded.
EVERY POINT A PRISONER
While such a sense of anti-climax was understandable considering the sky high expectations at kick off, and the fact victory was seemingly within their grasp, Rangers have not progressed so far since the dark days of Luxembourg last summer to sniff at another point carved out against a team as illustrious as Spartak. With Villarreal running out resounding victors against Rapid Vienna last night, it leaves them ahead of the Spaniards on head to head countback, with a home meeting with the Yellow Submarine still to come at Ibrox.
Russian sides are frequently said not to Travel well and the famous Spartak Moscow, named after the Roman slave Spartacus, were certainly on the ropes as they came into this gladiatorial contest. Languishing back in sixth in the Russian top flight, this week saw them dispense with the services of Italian manager Massimo Carrera and replace him with Raul Rianchio. They may not be so weakened by the time in a fortnight or so when Rangers travel to Moscow for the re-match.
They were certainly all at sea in the opening stages here, content simply to stifle and attempt to thwart the Ibrox side. But at the end of a week where Steven Gerrard laid claim to old school credentials, this was the old-fashioned game of two halves. The Russians introduced a couple of their better players from the bench at half-time in the form of Sofiane Hanni and former Kilmarnock playmaker Alexei Eremenko’s brother Roman and created at least a few moments of home panic in the second period.
For all Rangers’ dominance last night, that final ball proved elusive on a blustery night which made high balls well nigh impossible to judge. Too often the Ibrox side were guilty also of passing up opportunities to get their shot away when in decent positions, with Daniel Candeias in particular an offender. Judging by the manner in which his team seemed far keener to fire shots in when it came to the second half, it was a point their old school manager was not shy at making at half-time. With just 14 goals from 11 matches in Europe to date, Rangers will need to be more clinical with whatever chances come their way if they are to progress from this group.
DOES GREZDA GET THE NOD UP FRONT FOR HAMPDEN
Where does this leave Rangers ahead of Sunday’s Betfred Cup semi-final against an Aberdeen side, who have had fully a week to rest up ahead of the Hampden showpiece. Well, we are still none the wiser about who Steven Gerrard will play up front against the Dons. While this was a fine showing from Ryan Kent, the manager has some thinking to do when it comes to working out who will replace the suspended Alfredo Morelos and the cup tied Kyle Lafferty.
Albanian frontman Eros Grezda was one man who came off the bench to audition for that role. While there wasn’t too much wrong about the position he took up and his right foot strike when Kent presented him with a chance to be the hero with the very last kick of the game, his right foot strike flew inches over the crossbar, and he was just out of reach with another presentable opportunity. Glenn Middleton, in such burgeoning form a matter of weeks ago, was given only a few minutes here in a wide position.
Considering what a coherent defensive unit Rangers have been this season, things aren’t exactly plain sailing for Gerrard at the back either ahead of the meeting with the Dons. The sixth clean sheet of the season for Allan McGregor, and perhaps the most untroubled of the lot, it still is any three from two when it comes to be Rangers central defensive options. While it is hard to bet against the experienced Connor Goldson playing back there at Hampden, whether it is Joe Worrall or Nikola Katic who he has alongside him is anybody’s guess. This was a tough night for centre backs, where both men struggled at times with their distribution.
Source : HeraldScotland