RANGERS produced arguably their best performance of the season to defeat a massively impressive SC Braga side on their own patch to progress to the Last 16 of the UEFA Europa League.
Steven Gerrard’s Gers were simply outstanding here in Portugal tonight, with Ryan Kent’s second half goal the winner to add to last week’s remarkable 3-2 victory at Ibrox. Indeed, they were able to even afford to miss a penalty through Ianis Hagi right at the end of the second half.
From the side which faced St Johnstone in Perth on Sunday, out went Nikola Katic, Andy Halliday, Joe Aribo and the suspended Alfredo Morelos.
Coming into the side for this one were George Edmundson, fit-again Borna Barisic, Steven Davis and for a first start in Light Blue, Florian Kamberi.
The Estadio Braga de Municipal is world famous – and being inside it really is a breath-taking experience.
Two huge, two tier stands run alongside either touchline, holding just over 30,000 fans, while behind either goal is sheer rock, the stadium having been carved into a disused quarry.
The home side began the match with plenty of possession, but the first real chance of the game fell to Rangers on nine minutes.
Braga were caught playing too high a line, and Steven Davis turned the ball over in midfield to put Scott Arfield through on goal. He travelled with the ball to the edge of the area, and squared it right for Flo Kamberi, who had joined him in support.
The striker’s effort was saved, however, by goalkeeper Matheus, who was quickly off his line to deny the striker.
Again, Braga were to keep the ball for long periods, but they failed to trouble McGregor before another huge chance came the way of the Light Blues.
This time Ianis Hagi chased a long ball over the top into the corner, and got the better of Raul Silva. Hagi charged into the area and squared for Ryan Kent, but under some pressure in the area, he shot wide of the left post.
It was another huge opportunity for Gerrard’s men, but they kept the pressure up following that, winning a free-kick 25-yards from goal which Hagi sent over the bar.
The home side’s first real chance then arrived on 26 minutes, with super skill from Francisco Trincao on the left allowing him the opportunity to cross for Paulinho head towards goal, but there was McGregor with a super reflex stop to turn his effort over the bar.
Paulinho then had another headed opportunity, nodding a Nuno Sequeira cross wide at the front post, but Gers were settling into this match more and more as the half progressed, and indeed it was they who were enjoying more and more possession as the half progressed.
Then, in the final minute of the half, Rangers were awarded a penalty. Barisic’s corner was handled in the area by Raul Silva, and following a VAR check, the award was confirmed.
It fell to Hagi to take, and while his effort was powerful and looked to be heading into the net, Matheus made a remarkable stop to his right to keep the scores level going into the break.
Scot Arfield had a shot from the edge of the area blocked as Gers tried to begin the second half on the front-foot, while Kent could only volley a Kamberi cross on the stretch over the bar inside the area.
Braga then began to take more and more control of the match in advanced areas, but again, they weren’t able to hurt Gers before on 61 minutes, the Light Blues finally took one of their chances to go 4-2 ahead in the tie.
Yet again, the home side’s defensive line was so high, and Ianis Hagi played a super ball over the top of it for Ryan Kent to run onto. Nuno Sequeira gave chase, but Kent was just to fast for him, and from the left of goal, he put a little clip on his effort to take it over Matheus and into the far bottom corner.
And with that, cue complete and utter bedlam among the thousands and thousands of Gers supporters who had made the trip to back their team.
Braga knew they had to go for it from that point, and on 72 minutes, they shuld have been level. Paulinho missed yet another header, this time from six-yards out, with his effort on the end of a Trincao cross grazing the post on its way out for a goal kick.
Gers thought they had put the tie to bed on 77 minutes – Matheus made a wonderful save from Connor Goldson’s header on the end of a Tavernier corner and putting the loose ball into the net was Arfield – but he was in an offside position.
The Portuguese side were becoming more and more desperate as the minutes ticked down, but as they had done all night, Rangers kept their shape magnificently, with Goldson and Edmundson dealing expertly with anything that was thrown into the area.
Substitute Sheyi Ojo stung the palms of Matheus in injury-time, but that was to the the last real action as Gers saw it out for a famous, famous victory.
Bring on that draw on Friday!
RANGERS: McGregor; Tavernier, Goldson, Edmundson, Barisic; Davis, Jack, Arfield; Hagi (Aribo, 72), Kent, Kamberi (Ojo, 78).
SUBS: Foderingham, Halliday, Kamara, Katic, Stewart.
SC BRAGA: Matheus, Sequeira, Paulinho, R Horta, Fransergio, Silva (Galeno, 53), Viana, Esgaio, Palhinha (Novais, 45), Trincao, Carmo (Ruiz, 64).
SUBS: Sa, Tormena, A Horta, Fonte.