RANGERS will take a two-goal lead to Slovenia for next week’s second leg with Maribor after a wonderful showing from Steven Gerrard’s side on an uproarious Ibrox night.
Alfredo Morelos’ early opener was canceled out before half time by a stunning Mitja Viler volley. But a James Tavernier penalty and a Lassana Coulibaly header ensured they have a cushion for Thursday’s second leg.
From the side which earned a 1-1 draw at Aberdeen on Sunday, out went the injured Ryan Jack, Josh Windass who had departed for Wigan Athletic and Jamie Murphy, with their places taken by Ovie Ejaria, Ryan Kent and Daniel Candeias.
Since arriving at the club, Steven Gerrard has been preaching high-energy, high-pressing football from his side, and they earned their opening goal in the match through exactly that after just five minutes.
Scott Arfield had begun the game with some real intent, and as Maribor dallied at the back to clear the ball, he nipped it away from Blaz Vrhovec and sprayed it into the box for the in-rushing Ryan Kent.
Kent did extremely well to get the ball away from the attentions of defender Sasa Ivkovic, and he curled an effort goalwards, which Jasmin Handanovic did well to save. However, he could push the ball only as far as Alfredo Morelos, who, just two yards out and with an empty goal, simply couldn’t miss.
Ibrox shrieked with delight as the Colombian slammed the ball into the back of the net to hand his side a dream start on the night.
Rangers knew Maribor were a strong side, and on 14 minutes, they forced Allan McGregor into action for the first time on the night with Aleks Pihler’s shot from distance being pushed wide for a corner.
McGregor was then forced into another save, pushing away a Marcos Tavares effort, while James Tavernier did superbly to block Luka Zahovic’s follow-up effort on the line.
At the other end, a fine corner routine which began with Ryan Kent taking the kick and then Arfield dummying the ball for it to fall for Tavernier ended with the Gers captain firing over from 25-yards.
It was another excellent European tie at Ibrox, and Tavernier made another superb block, this time to deny Gregor Badje tapping home a cut-back from Zahiovic.
Gers then thought they had extended their lead as again they pressured the Maribor defence. This time, Candeias won the ball high up from Mitja Viler. He should have went himself, but instead squared for Morelos, and while he finished, he was in an offside position.
Seconds later, Viler atoned for that error in some style, as he drew Maribor level. Pushing forward, the ball dropped for him on the half-volley on the far side of the Gers box at an acute angle, and he blasted the ball stunningly beyond the reach of McGregor.
Rangers began the second half again on the front-foot and had a series of corners, while Lassana Coulibaly forced Handanovic into a wonderful save after he spun away from Vrhovec inside the area and unleashed a powerful shot which looked destined for the top corner.
Then, on 49 minutes, Rangers were awarded a penalty kick. A long ball forward was latched onto superbly by Alfredo Morelos, and he was upended in the box by Ivkovic who was also booked for his foul.
Up stepped captain Tavernier to take, and he typically dispatched his kick with real aplomb, to again set Ibrox alight.
The intensity Gerrard’s side had begun the second half with was simply outstanding, and it seemed it was wave after wave of attack heading towards the Maribor goal.
Tavernier forced Handanovic into another wonder save to tip a 25-yard drive over the bar, while Arfield also tested the goalkeeper low at his back post.
Connor Goldson then had a Madjid Bougherra moment, charging forward and skinning two Maribor midfielders on his way through before unleashing a shot from distance which went well over.
As the minutes ticked down, a superb break, led by Morelos and Candeias, ended with the Portuguese crossing to the back post for Ryan Kent. On its way through, however, the ball took a nick off Handanovic before it dropped for Kent, and that allowed Maribor back to clear.
It had been a stunning second half showing from Gers, and with five minutes to go, they made it 3-1. After a Tavernier free-kick was cleared wide, the ball dropped for Jamie Murphy and he stood it back up perfectly for Lassana Coulibaly to head home his first Rangers goal.
RANGERS: McGregor; Tavernier, Goldson, Katic, Flanagan; Arfield, Coulibaly, Ejaria (Murphy, 78); Candeias, Kent (McCrorie, 88), Morelos (Umar, 88).
SUBS: Foderingham, Halliday, Kelly, Middleton.
MARIBOR: Handanovic, Klinar, Suler, Vrhovec, Pihler, Tavares (Vrsic, 79), Zahovic, Bajde (Mesanovic,, 62), Derisevic, Viler, Ivkovic.
SUBS: Piric, Cretu, Hotic, Mlakar, Uskokovic.
REFEREE: Roi Reinshreiber (Israel)