RANGERS have progressed to the group stage of this season’s Europa League after a dramatic and nail-biting play-off round second leg match against Ufa of Russia.
In a quite remarkable game full of incidents, Rangers took the lead after just nine minutes when Ovie Ejaria scored with a stunning strike but Ufa equalised after the half-hour mark through forward Dmitri Sysuev.
At this stage Steven Gerrard’s men were still on top in the tie with a 2-1 aggregate lead, but a red card shown to Alfredo Morelos on 37 minutes meant it was far from over.
With an extra-man advantage Ufa never gave up hope and when Jon Flanagan also saw red with 66 minutes played having received two yellow cards, the nine-men Light Blues had to defend for their lives as they were pounded by almost constant pressure.
At the final whistle, however, the aggregate score was all that mattered and Rangers can now enjoy the fact they are through to the lucrative group stage of the Europa League, with the draw at 1pm in Monaco tomorrow.
Wearing their stunning Hummel away kit, it was the visitors who got the game underway in front of a passionate and vociferous home support.
And the Ufa fans were quickly out of their seats when towering midfielder Ivan Paurevic sclaffed an early shot towards Allan McGregor which never troubled the goalkeeper.
On nine minutes, however, it was the 70 bears in the away end of the ground that were celebrating as Ejaria opened the scoring with a wonderful strike.
Flanagan’s cross from the left was cleared nervously to the on-loan Liverpool midfielder and from just inside the 18-yard box he curled a stunning shot beyond goalkeeper Aleksandr Belenov.
It was a dream start for the visitors and with an away goal in the bag, and a 2-0 aggregate lead in place, the Light Blues looked to be in a strong position in the tie – but things quickly changed.
Before the half-hour mark Ufa created their best chance of the game up to this point. Sylvester Igboun got in behind the Rangers defence on the left wing and his attempted chip over McGregor fell at the feet of Dmitri Zhivoglyadov . He took one touch but failed to find the net from close range.
This was a warning for the visitors but on 31 minutes they almost doubled their advantage when Ejaria again picked the ball up in a dangerous position but his low shot from 20 yards went inches wide of the post having taken a nick off a defender.
The game was now flowing from end to end and 60 second later Ufa pulled a goal back. A long ball over the head of Flanagan found Sysuev and the number seven darted towards goal unchallenged before finding the opposite corner of McGregor’s net.
Ufa were now the team in the ascendancy and on 36 minutes Connor Goldson had to clear a dangerous cross from the lively Sysuev.
It was non-stop action at this point and the game took another dramatic twist with eight minutes of the first half remaining when Morelos was sent off.
The Colombian looked to be harshly booked as he turned just inside his own half but caught a defender in the process.
He was clearly frustrated at the decision but showed too much emotion for German referee Tobias Stieler who pulled out his red card and sent the shocked striker for an early bath.
Having started the game so well Rangers were now up against it and they could have conceded again before the interval with Sysuev shooting across McGregor and wide from a tight angle and Igboun heading into the side at the back post from a deep cross.
Gerrard decided to make his first switch during the break with Kyle Lafferty going on for Daniel Candeias. The big Ulsterman took up the loan striker position with Rangers now in a 4-4-1 formation.
Despite being a man down Rangers created the first opening of the second half on 49 minutes and it was all down to the skill and pace of Ryan Kent.
The winger drove at Ufa’s defence and after getting in the box he cut inside and curled a right-foot shot which Belenov somehow managed to put around his post with an incredible fingertip save.
Like the first half this was end to end stuff and when Zhivoglyadov found space on the right his soaring shot looked to be flicked over the bar by McGregor. The ref, however, awarded a goal kick.
With half an hour to go Rangers were camped in their own half and struggling to maintain possession. Ufa, on the other hand, were pushing forward at every opportunity with intent and their fans clearly felt their side still had a chance of winning the tie.
Their chances improved even more when Flanagan joined Morelos in the away dressing room after he received a second yellow card for what appeared to be leading with his arm as he went up for a header with Zhivoglyadov.
After a hectic period of fixtures Rangers were now hanging on with substitute Andy Halliday doing everything he could to motivate his tiring teammates after he replaced Scott Arfield.
Whatever he was saying it seemed to work as Rangers gave everything in the latter stages of the game, at times defending heroically in front of the superb McGregor, to ensure the club progressed to the group stages of the Europa League.
UFA: Belenov, Alikin (Oblyakov 52), Jokic, Salatic (Krotov 76), Sysuev, Vanek, Zhivoglyadov, Paurevic, Nedelcearu, Igboun, Tabidze
SUBS: Sheliya, Carp, Zaseev, Tumasyan, Sukhov
GOALS: Sysuev 32
BOOKINGS: Salatic, Paurevic, Igboun
RANGERS: McGregor, Tavernier, Katic, Goldson, Flanagan, Jack, Ejaria, Arfield (Halliday 70), Candeias (Lafferty 45), Kent, Morelos
SUBS: Foderingham, Sadiq, Ross McCrorie, Wallace, Middleton
GOALS: Ejaria 9
BOOKINGS: Morelos, Flanagan
SENT OFF: Morelos, Flanagan