IT was yet another special, incredible night at Ibrox Stadium as Rangers somehow battled from being two goals down after 59 minutes to beat Braga in the first leg of the Europa League Round of 32.
On what was a quite remarkable night under the lights, the visitors were in dreamland, with goals from Fransergio and Abel Ruiz giving them a seemingly strong advantage with an hour of football played.
A comeback at this stage looked highly unlikely but, against the odds, Steven Gerrard’s brave men recovered with a double from the electric Ianis Hagi and a wonderful solo effort from super sub Joe Aribo securing a hugely memorable victory, and one that will not be forgotten by those lucky enough to be here to witness it.
Gerrard made two changes to his side this evening. From the team which defeated Livingston on Sunday, out went Andy Halliday and the suspended Ryan Jack, with their places in the XI taken by fit-again Borna Barisic and Glen Kamara.
That meant it was a back five of Allan McGregor in goals with James Tavernier, Connor Goldson, Nikola Katic and Barisic in front of him.
Scott Arfield, Steven Davis and Kamara were in midfield, while up front, Hagi and Ryan Kent supported Alfredo Morelos.
Fans in the Broomloan Stand produced a huge, stunning banner as both sets of players emerged from the Bill Struth Main Stand tunnel ahead of kick-off, and this only added to what was an already electric pre-match atmosphere.
Rangers had an early scare to deal with when Allan McGregor pulled off a good save from the unmarked Bruno Viana after a free-kick had been whipped into the box.
Braga then pushed forward with intent once again, with impressive number 77 Trincao Francisco so close to finding the net with a powerful left foot shot.
It was a nervy start to the match for the home side, but spirits were lifted on seven minutes when Morelos sprinted clear on the right wing and his low cross was just out of reach for the sliding Ryan Kent.
The in-form visitors were looking lively however, and Allan McGregor could do nothing to stop the stunning opening goal when it arrived on 11 minutes.
Braga’s Brazilian captain Fransergio picked the ball up 35 yards out and unleashed a ferocious shot which dipped under the crossbar before rippling the net in front of the stunned Copland bears.
It could have been worse for the Gers with just 20 minutes on the clock. Francisco curled a cross to the back post to Braga’s main striker Paulinho who headed over at full stretch.
Morelos was proving to be a handful at the other end of the pitch though, and again he was given the opportunity to sprint clear on the right channel. The Colombian let fly with a low drive but it hit the legs of goalkeeper Matheus before the ball was cleared to safety.
The Europa League’s top scorer looked to be in the mood and with the Gers supporters singing his name another goalscoring chance came his way.
A long ball over the Braga defence from Hagi squirmed away from substitute Galeno, allowing Morelos to dart clear once more, this time coming in from the left.
With time to assess the situation, the powerful striker tried to beat Matheus at his near post this time but again the goalkeeper made a good stop to maintain his side’s one-goal advantage.
With a two-goal lead in place, Braga were playing with confidence, in particular 20-year-old Francisco, who will join Barcelona this summer after agreeing a £26 million move to the Catalan side, who have inserted a £421 million buy-out clause as part of the deal.
The talented forward got in behind the Gers backline and, after twisting and turning Barisic, curled a clever left-foot shot which went inches wide of the far post.
Four minutes before the break Morelos was booked for a foul on Bruno Viana, meaning the striker will miss the second leg in Portugal next week which is big blow.
It was a disappointing way for the half to end for Rangers but with the score still 1-0 this intriguing game was far from over.
The second half, like the first, started nervously for the Light Blues, with Paulinho latching on to a slack back-header from Kamara. Thankfully, the forward’s touch was heavy and the ball ran through to McGregor.
Braga were keeping the pressure on and when the Gers tried to play out from the back from McGregor to Goldson and then Tavernier, the team in red and white quickly won it back and Fransergio clipped the crossbar from 18 yards.
It was end-to-end football and on 56 minutes Rangers fans were left scratching their heads and wondering how Morelos hadn’t levelled the score.
Hagi delivered a teasing ball in from the right and from two yards out Matheus somehow managed to get his hand to the ball to stop it crossing the line.
That looked to be a turning point in the tie as Braga then went up the park and before the hour mark they made it 2-0.
A clever flick midway inside Rangers’ half allowed Abel Ruiz to get in a shooting position and the on loan Barcelona forward’s accurate shot flew past McGregor before he could even react.
The second goal silenced the Ibrox faithful but eight minutes later they were back out of their seats when Hagi produced a moment of magic to pull a goal back. The 21-year-old cut in from the right and fired a shot beyond Matheus at his near post via the post.
If that was a moment of class what Aribo produced to level the score on 74 minutes was quite simply sensational.
The super sub picked the ball up on the left flank, cut inside and just seemed to skip past player after player to get into Braga’s box. Once there he composed himself and curled a low finish into the net to send Ibrox into ecstasy.
But the incredible drama wasn’t finished there. The referee awarded a free-kick 25 yards from Braga’s goal and Hagi stepped up to take it. The ball took a wicked deflection to beat Matheus but the Rangers fans didn’t care about that as they celebrated wildly in all four stands while Gerrard and his staff sprinted down the touchline to join the party.
It was incredible stuff and when the final whistle there were probably not many fans in the stadium who could believe what they had just witnessed.
Against a quality side Rangers showed unbelievable fight, character and determination, and they have given themselves a great chance to progress to the last 16 stage of the Europa League in Portugal next Wednesday.
RANGERS (4-3-3): McGregor; Tavernier, Goldson, Katic, Barisic (Stewart 72); Davis, Kamara (Aribo 54), Arfield; Hagi, Morelos, Kent (Kamberi 68)
SUBS NOT USED: Foderingham, Edmundson, Halliday, Barker
GOALS: Hagi 67, 82, Aribo 75
BRAGA (4-4-2): Matheus; Wallace (Galeno 12), B. Viana, Silva, Sequeira; Esgaio, Palhinha, Fransergio, Francisco; Ruiz (Horta 70), Paulinho (Novais 83)
SUBS NOT USED: Sa, D. Viana, Horta, Fonte
GOALS: Fransergio 11, Ruiz 59
BOOKINGS: Galeno, Silva
REF: Xavier Fernandez (ESP)