TORE ANDRE FLO was as cool as ice in the heat and smoke of Maribor with a superb performance which has surely guaranteed progression to the third qualifying round of the Champions League where dangerous Turks Fenerbahce are waiting.
The Norwegian scored twice, once from the penalty spot, and set up the other strike for new signing Christian Nerlinger to take out the Slovenian champions who will find themselves in major difficulties with UEFA after their fans launched flares onto the pitch and also invaded the playing area.
Rangers were slow starters, but they produced an excellent performance in what could have been a tricky game for them and Dick Advocaat can be very pleased with his team’s efforts but especially Flo.
The tall Norwegian has started the season in just the kind of Form Advocaat hoped he would and that surely augurs well for the challenges ahead.
The Ljudksi Vrt stadium may not be one of the most hostile arenas in European football but Maribor’s fans made sure of a hot reception for Rangers, who made an inauspicious start to the match to say the least.
Their season was just 37 seconds old when Lorenzo Amoruso very nearly gifted a goal to the Slovenian champions. Amoruso has proved he is a good defender but he is susceptible to moments of slackness and one came along inside the first minute to set the alarm bells ringing on the bench.
The big Italian was trying to play a passback to Stefan Klos from just inside his own half but was considerably short allowing Hungarian striker Barnabas Sztipanovics a run at Klos. Fortunately, the German keeper got their first to clear.
It turned out to be a bad night all round for Amoruso as he collected a yellow card and had to come off at half-time after pulling up with a thigh injury.
The early chance certainly boosted the confidence of Maribor who pressed Rangers hard in the opening moments and there was another concerning situation in nine minutes when Suad Filekovics’ freekick came swinging into the box, but Bert Konterman got the ball clear.
Amoruso’s caution came in 14 minutes for a last-ditch challenge on Sztipanovics in a wide area and at this stage Rangers had not yet settled.
And a minute later the former skipper only succeeded in helping the ball into the back post area when trying to clear Simon Seslar’s freekick allowing Stipe Balajic a clear header. Luckily for Rangers, the striker missed the target, hitting the side netting.
Gradually, though, Rangers began to find their game and in 18 minutes some clever play from Christian Nerlinger gave Rangers their first opportunity of the game. The German midfielder stepped over Arthur Numan’s pass allowing Russell Latapy a shot at goal but he lifted it over the top.
Latapy created an even better moment in 22 minutes when he burst forward from his own half and released Claudio Caniggia on the left side with Maribor suddenly caught short at the back.
Tore Andre Flo peeled away and Caniggia should have found him but his pass was slack and former Barnsley defender Ales Krizan was able to clear for a corner. It was an encouraging sign and the three players were to link more effectively later.
Amoruso had settled down by this stage and he came close to firing Rangers in front from a freekick after Arthur Numan had been tripped in 31 minutes.
The Italian’s effort bent around the wall and seemed to catch keeper Marko Simeunovic by surprise as he spilled it but no Rangers player was able to take advantage.
Maribor then succumbed to a yellow card in 36 minutes when Marinko Sarkezi went right through the back of Flo but the Norwegian was undaunted as he gave Rangers a precious lead two minutes later.
It was a great goal too. Caniggia spotted Latapy moving forward in a central area and the little Caribbean midfielder played a neat pass into Flo who slotted a right foot shot into the left corner and then took the adulation of the 249 Rangers fans behind Simeunovic’s goal.
Sadly for Amoruso, he had to come off at half-time when he seemed to pull up with a thigh injury and Barry Ferguson was introduced with Bert Konterman moving back into central defence from his midfield role.
However, Rangers were a different proposition in the second half as they really found their form to run out convincing winners and effectively clinch a safe passage to the third qualifying round where they will meet Fenerbahce.
The movement and passing all clicked into gear as they got the goals they wanted to virtually kill the tie with Christian Nerlinger and Flo again supplying the strikes.
Flo played a huge part in Nerlinger’s goal in 56 minutes when he knocked down Caniggia’s path into the path of the German midfielder who rifled a right foot shot into the net off the right hand post.
Nerlinger very nearly reciprocated with a cross from the left in 59 minutes but Flo’s header was blocked. He then made way for Neil McCann in 64 minutes with his work well done.
Rangers were not finished though – or make that Flo was not finished. The towering striker was hauled to the floor by Stipe Balajic in 73 minutes to win a penalty from Dutch referee Mario van der Ende and Balajic, who injured himself in the process, was booked.
Flo had to wait iuntil the Maribor player was treated before he could take the spotkick but it mattered little as he stroked the ball into the left corner and clenched his fist to celebrate an excellent night’s work.
Sadly, the match was marred by a pitch invasion from three Maribor supporters who seemed to be trying to get to the Rangers fans – actions which will undoubtedly land the Slovenian club in trouble with UEFA.
These incursions, allied to the flares which were thrown onto the pitch, will almost certainly result in a fine or maybe something more punitive.
It matters little, though, as Rangers are well on their way to meeting Fenerbahce for a place in the Champions League.
RANGERS:Klos; Ricksen, Moore, Amoruso (Ferguson 45), Numan; Latapy, Konterman, Reyna, Nerlinger (McCann 64); Caniggia (Mols 69), Flo. Subs not used – Christiansen, Miller, Johnston, Vidmar.
Referee: Mario van der Ende (Holland)
Man of the match: Tore Andre Flo.
Moment of the match: Flo’s excellent strike which set up a great win.