RANGERS will carry a two-goal lead to Luxembourg next week after defeating Progrès Niederkorn at Ibrox Stadium this evening.
Goals in either half from Joe Aribo and Sheyi Ojo saw Gers record another victory in Europe – although the margin of victory should have been much higher ahead of the second leg at the Josy Barthel Stadium a week tonight.
Seldom would Rangers have played an Ibrox match in such high temperatures, the mercury topping 30-degrees on the Southside of Glasgow during the day, with the heat still being close to that at the 7.45pm kick-off, while the humidity meant boss Steven Gerrard abandoned his club-issue jacket as he watched from the sidelines.
The steamy conditions, however, didn’t affect the pace of the game, and while Gers were quick to take the game to Progrès, it was the visitors who had the first real opportunity, Kempes Tekiela shooting straight at Allan McGregor from the edge of the box after finding space between Gers’ two centre-halves.
At the other end, Alfredo Morelos was inches away from connecting in the air to a James Tavernier cross to the back post, but Gers were finding it tough for clear openings against the Luxembourgers given had so many men sitting so deep.
The way to beat such tactics, often, is to shoot from distance, and Joe Aribo trying his luck from around 20-yards brought the opening goal on 19 minutes.
A neat lay-off from Scott Arfield left Aribo with some space just to the left of the ‘D’. He quickly got the ball out of his feet, found the tightest of gaps in the Progrès defence, and curled a beautiful finish through that space, beyond goalkeeper Sebastian Flauss, and into the back of the net.
It made it two goals in two European games for the Englishman, and it was met with a huge surge of energy inside the stadium which quickly found its way to the players.
Twice Flauss denied Andy Halliday low to his left as Gers found space to play the left full-back in, while a wonderful move involving Arfield and Aribo ended with Aribo slipping a ball to Morelos, stationed on the penalty spot with his back to goal, the Colombian turning away from his marker and shooting just wide.
A Tavernier cross from deep caught the Progrès defence unawares next, with the ball reaching Arfield who, on the stretch and almost from the edge of the area, could only head into the arms of Flauss.
Superb skill from Aribo presented Arfield with another opportunity, but Flauss came out to quickly to dive at his feet to block, while the offside flag denied Sheyi Ojo when he put in a rebounded Steven Davis strike.
George Edmundson had a pop at goal from around 40-yards within two minutes of the restart which slipped just wide, while Flauss again denied Arfield, rushing out to deny him when Ryan Jack played him in.
Gers did grab a second, however, on 53 minutes. James Tavernier played a short corner to the edge of the box for Sheyi Ojo, the on-loan Liverpool man stepping inside his man and finding the bottom corner superbly to relieve the growing tension around Ibrox.
Ojo almost grabbed a second soon after, being inches away from finishing an Aribo cross, with Aribo having an ever-growing influence on the game.
Scott Arfield was replaced by Jordan Jones on 66 minutes, and within two minutes of that, he won a penalty for his side, being brought down as he tried to skip through a cluster of Progrès bodies.
Up-stepped James Tavernier to take, and his effort looked goal-bound all the way but came back off the inside of the post.
Flauss had to punch away a Defoe effort from the edge of the box after the former England striker replaced Morelos, while at the other end, Allan McGregor made a super save from Jack Mmaee as he was released one-on-one with the Gers goalkeeper following some slack play.
Defoe then produced a stunning flick to play-in Ryan Jack, though he was denied again by the linesman as he rifled the ball into the net, before as Defoe tried to break from halfway, he was held back by the already booked Tom Laterza, who was subsequently shown a second yellow.
Flauss made two excellent late saves from Jack and Aribo late-on to ensure Gers still have some work to do next week.
RANGERS: McGregor; Tavernier, Edmundson, Goldson, Halliday; Jack, Davis, Aribo; Arfield (Jones, 66), Ojo, Morelos (Defoe, 75).
SUBS: Foderingham, Kamara, Katic, Stewart, Barisic.
Progrès Niederkorn: Flauss, Skenderovic (Marques, 33), Vogel, Almedia, Muratovic (Mmaee, 46), Tekiela, Ferino, Laterza, Hall, Karayer, Salaj.
SUBS: Czekanowicz, Cervellera, Bastos, Francoise, Shala.
SENT OFF: Laterza
REFEREE: Espen Eskas (Norway)