RUSSIAN outfit Ufa stand between Rangers and a place in the Europa League group stage following a disciplined showing in Slovenia tonight to get past NK Maribor.
Leading 3-1 from the first leg, Gers were excellent at the Ljudski Vrt Stadion to get past an impressive and experienced outfit.
From the side which defeated St Mirren 2-0 at Ibrox on Sunday in the Scottish Premiership, out went the injured Lassana Coulibaly, the suspended Jon Flanagan and the ineligible Borna Barisic as well as Ross McCrorie and Ryan Kent, with their places taken by fit-again Ryan Jack, James Tavernier, Andy Halliday, Scott Arfield and Daniel Candeias.
Trailing 3-1 after the first leg, it would have been sensible for Gers to assume Maribor were going to come at them fast from the first whistle, but for the first 18 minutes, Allan McGregor remained untested.
That was until a slack pass from Ryan Jack presented Marcos Tavares a shooting opportunity, with McGregor beating his shot from 25-yards back out of his area to the feet of Jasmin Mesanovic, who fired wildly wide.
Luka Zahovic then had the chance to shoot from the 18-yard line, but again for the home side, the effort was off-target.
Those opportunities seemed to give the home side a deal of confidence, as they pinned Steven Gerrard’s men back for a sustained period, with Gers doing well to hold back the waves of purple-clad attackers.
Going the other way, Rangers had created little in the opening period, but a deep James Tavernier free-kick after a foul on Ovie Ejaria found the head of Connor Goldson who couldn’t get enough on the ball to steer it goalwards.
With 10 minutes to go until the interval, McGregor was called upon to make a stunning save from Amir Dervisevic.
Maribor were awarded a free-kick around 35-yards from goal on the right hand-side. Dervisevic looked set to whip a ball in to look for a teammate in the box, and McGregor, rightly, had prepared for such a delivery. However, Dervisevic unleashed a wicked shot which looked destined for the corner until McGregor flew across his goal to somehow get a hand to his fabulous effort.
As half-time approached Blaz Vrhovec was allowed to waltz through the Gers midfield but could find only the arms of McGregor, while a similar effort at the other end from Alfredo Morelos found the gloves of Jasmin Handanovic.
On 44 minutes, another excellent Tavernier delivery from a free-kick was won at the back post by Nikola Katic, and the ball dropped kindly for Scott Arfield 15-yards from goal. Perhaps not anticipating he had as much time as he did, with no Maribor defenders closing him down, he went for a first-time chip and the ball sailed over the bar.
At the start of the second half, Zahovic forced McGregor into a stop at his front post before Daniel Candieas passed up a good opportunity, running through on goal, albeit with defenders closing, and firing straight at Handanovic.
Connor Goldson then made a stunning block to deny Dino Hotic, with Maribor working a move where they ended up with two spare men over on the right-hand side.
Overall though, Gers had begun the second half with so much more attacking intent, and a stunning pick-out from Morelos put Murphy through on goal, albeit a little wide on the right, but he dragged a first-time shot wide of the far post.
There would come a time when Maribor would have to commit more men forward in search of a route back into the match, and Vrhovec won a free-header from a corner just shy of the six-yard box for the home side, which he sent over the bar.
The best chance to date for Maribor came on the 70th minute, when Zahovic headed down for Tavares inside the six-yard box. He seemed destined to score, but somehow, somehow, Allan McGregor got something on his shot to send it behind for a corner.
Yet another Tavernier free-kick ended with a Katic knock-down for Arfield, but this time, he couldn’t get his effort through a cluster of Maribor defenders.
All night, Alfredo Morelos had turned-in a tireless, selfless performance, and fine work from him on the right saw him skin Marko Suler before eventually being crowded out as he shot. From the resulting corner, the ball dropped for the Colombian in the six-yard box, but under pressure, he fired well over the bar.
Then, in the first minute of injury time, Maribor were awarded a penalty following a foul by Goldson. Up stepped Marco Tavares to take, but, not really surprisingly, he couldn’t find a way past McGregor, who made yet another stunning save to cap a wonderful night for the goalkeeper.
From there, Maribor looked dead on their feet, and from defence, Goldson ran the full length of the pitch and fired just inches wide of giving Rangers the win on the night.
RANGERS: McGregor; Tavernier, Goldson, Katic, Halliday, Jack, Arfield, Ejaria (Kent, 68), Candeias, Murphy (McCrorie, 76), Morelos.
SUBS NOT USED: Foderingham, Sadiq, Hodson, Kelly, Middleton.
NK MARIBOR: Handanovic, Kilnar (Pihler, 52), Suler, Vrhovec, Tavares, Hotc, Zahovic, Dervisevic (Vrsic, 73), Mesanovic (Mlakar, 79), Viler, Ivkovic.
SUBS NOT USED: Piric, Cretu, Bajde, Uskokovic.
REFEREE: Jonathan Lardot (Belgium)