JUST when you think you have seen it all, along comes a night like this to show that nothing can ever be taken for granted in football.
Fifth in the SPL – a massive 17 points behind Celtic – and enduring the worst winless sequence in the club’s history, Rangers somewhat improbably booked their place in the last 16 of the Champions League where they could meet the likes of Barcelona, Arsenal or AC Milan. Incredible.
A battling draw with Inter Milan – Peter Lovenkrands equalising Adriano’s opener late in the first half – combined with a goalless draw in the other Group H match between Artmedia Bratislava and Porto was the perfect permutation to send Alex McLeish’s men through to take their place among the European elite.
It may not be enough to keep Rangers’ embattled manager in a job but if he does depart he will do so knowing his place in the history books is assured after becoming the first manager to guide a Scottish club into the Champions League after Christmas.
There was some good news for McLeish prior to kick-off when his opposite number Roberto Mancini, as had been widely expected, rested several of his star names ahead of this weekend’s Serie A derby with AC Milan although Mancini could still name a starting line-up packed with internationalists, including the flamboyant Brazilian striker, Adriano.
McLeish countered with an inventive 4-5-1 formation with Lovenkrands as the spearhead, supported by the lively Thomas Buffel, hoping to cut off the midfield supply to Adriano and Obafemi Martins while using Lovenkrands’ pace to try to hit Inter on the counter attack.
It seemed an effective strategy for the opening half-hour as Rangers defended stoutly to combat an Inter side who, it has to be said, didn’t seem keen to accelerate out of first gear with their place in the Champions League last 16 already secured.
It took 10 minutes for either side to brave a shot at goal – Santiago Solari swiping an effort well over Ronald Waterreus’ crossbar – before Rangers countered with a Hamed Namouchi header that was well blocked by Marco Andreolli.
A set-piece offered Rangers their next opportunity when Buffel was bumped to the ground by the backtracking Mihajlovic but as Ibrox held its breath Bob Malcolm could only strike the free kick off the top of the defensive wall.
It was a frustrating waste of a rare opportunity in front of goal and Rangers would be made to pay for their profligacy just four minutes later when Inter went in front.
It was a goal of striking simplicity and one that would have had McLeish pulling his hair out as he watched Adriano glide in unmarked to nod Mihajlovic’s corner high past Waterreus.
The celebrations from Adriano, cooler than the Fonz in a freezer, were notably low-key, only adding to the sense of frustration felt around the bulk of the heaving stadium.
Rangers, to their credit, picked themselves off the ground and set about trying to regain a foothold in the match.
They were soon pushing their illustrious visitors once more on to the back foot, Francesco Toldo sliding in to boot Burke’s cross away from the lurking Buffel.
The Belgian had been warmly re-introduced back into the side the previous weekend against Falkirk and his finesse and creativity would prove telling once more in this match as Rangers drew level seven minutes from the break.
Buffel won possession in the heart of the pitch before threading a pinpoint pass through the Inter defence for Lovenkrands to run onto.
With Marco Materazzi off the field receiving treatment and the 36 year-old Mihajlovic trailing in his wake, the Dane kept his composure to finish crisply past Toldo. Ibrox erupted.
It was just reward for Rangers’ honest toil and they trooped up the tunnel at the break to be greeted with the news that there had been no goals in the other Group H match.
The second half brought more industry from Rangers and occasional flickers of brilliance from Inter but little in terms of clear-cut opportunities
The home side were looking increasingly more comfortable in possession – with Inter perhaps starting to think about their crunch derby match on Sunday – but created little for the ever-willing Lovenkrands or Buffel.
Mihajlovic lumped a free kick straight down Waterreus’ throat and Lovenkrands responded with a bobbling drive that Toldo held comfortably but that was it in terms of clear-cut chances.
In a remarkably benign second half a 20-man scrum broke out around the centre circle after the Italians took objection to Rangers playing on as Marco Andreolli lay prone on the pitch.
With Rangers continuing to press forward for a winning goal, Cristiano Zanetti was late with a tackle on Ian Murray and was sent off for a second yellow card.
Namouchi could have wrapped up the victory from the resultant free kick, latching on to Malcolm’s enticing delivery but contrived to screw the header wide.
Rangers chose not to press for a winner late on – a risky strategy given the closeness of events in Bratislava – before the final whistle sounded at Ibrox provoking anxious looks to the bench from the players. News from the other game eventually came through to confirm Gers had made it through against the odds.
RANGERS (4-4-1-1): 25 Waterreus; 2 Ricksen, 14 Kyrgiakos, 5 Andrews, 24 Murray; 17 Burke, 12 Malcolm, 6 Ferguson, 31 Namouchi; 4 Buffel; 26 Lovenkrands
Subs not used: Klos, Hutton, Pierre-Fanfan, Smith, McCormack, Thompson, Jeffers
Booked: Kyrgiakos (64), Andrews (82)
Sent off: None
INTER MILAN (4-4-2): 1 Toldo; 49 Andreolli (J Zanetti 69), 11 Mihajlovic, 23 Materazzi (Momente 41), 3 Burdisso; 21 Solari, 6 C Zanetti, 8 Pizarro, 33 Wome; 10 Adriano (Boumsong 80), 30 Martins
Subs not used: Cesar, Favalli, Cambiasso, Samuel
Booked:C Zanetti (45), Pizarro (74), Momente (90)
Sent off: C Zanetti (87)
Referee: Konrad Plautz (Austria)
Key Player:Peter Lovenkrands, a priceless goal.