RANGERS slipped to their first defeat in 12 European fixtures this season after leading three times in Moscow against Spartak.
They led 3-2 at the break after an own goal and strikes from wingers Daniel Candeias and Glenn Middleton and might have been further ahead but for a linesman’s flag ruling out Alfredo Morelos just before half time.
However a second half turn around from the home side meant Rangers would travel home from Moscow with nothing to show for their endeavour on the back of a 4-3 defeat.
In near-freezing conditions at the quite outstanding Otkritie Arena in the Russian capital, boss Gerrard named no-less than five changes to his starting XI from the side which defeated St Mirren 2-0 in the Scottish Premiership on Saturday.
Out went Joe Worrall, Andy Halliday, Ryan Jack, Eros Grezda and the injured Ryan Kent, with their places taken by Nikola Katic, Jon Flanagan, Lassana Coulibaly, Daniel Candeias and Glenn Middleton with a European debut respectively.
At yesterday’s press conference, defender Connor Goldson expressed a belief tonight’s game would be a more open affair then when the two sides met at Ibrox a fortnight ago, and he was certainly correct going on the opening minutes.
A snapshot from Roman Zobnin was just wide of Allan McGregor’s right-hand post after Gers got themselves in a bit of a fankle on the edge of the area in clearing the ball.
Then, a nice move involving Alfredo Morelos and Scott Arfield ended with Arfield bursting into the Spartak box and cutting the ball back for Glenn Middleton who had arrived at the back post only for Nikolai Rasskazov to nip in and clear the ball at the last possible instant over the top of the bar for a corner.
Middleton came over to the nearside to take that corner kick, and his delivery was excellent for Morelos to attack. However, in attempting to defend the ball from the Colombian, Roman Eremenko glanced the ball goalwards and beyond the reach of Aleksandr Maskimenko and into the back of the net.
The usual scenes of utter pandemonium among the 700-strong contingent from Glasgow then followed as they greeted the best possible opening to the match for their side.
Spartak hit back well, and a fierce, dipping effort from Salvatore Bocchetti was saved superbly at the postage stamp by Allan McGregor. However, the goalkeeper could do little as Spartak levelled matters on 22 minutes.
From the left, Ivelin Popov was allowed too much space to cross and steaming in at the back post came Lorenzo Melgarejo to volley home.
Five minutes later, and the game again swung the way of Gerrard’s men. Latching onto a long ball forward from Jon Flanagan and beating the high offside trap, Daniel Candeias with his back to goal brought the ball down wonderfully, turned and hit the ball low and hard beyond Maksimenko from just outside the box.
This was madness already, and the half would only continue to grow even further in its craziness on 35 minutes, with Goldson turning a Rasskazov cross into his own net for 2-2.
It was an unfortunate moment for the big stopper, but again, back came the Light Blues, this time on 41 minutes making it 3-2.
Bringing down a through-ball, Morelos’ attempt to run through on goal was cleared awkwardly by Bocchetti with the ball dropping beautifully for Glenn Middleton at the back post.
The 18 year-old showed all the composure in the world to calmly slot the ball beyond Maksimenko to again ignite the travelling fans up in the gods of the Otkritie Arena.
Rangers thought they had a fourth goal at the end of this wild half of football at the end of a stunning counter attack only to be denied by the offside flag of the linesman.
Lassana Coulibaly charged forward with the ball before spraying the ball wide to the right for Candeias. His cross from deep was just wonderful for Morelos who had come from the opposite flank to smash the ball home – but harshly, the flag of the assistant referee denied him.
The second half began just as open as the first was, and only a wonder-save from McGregor at close-range denied Sofiane Hanni after Luiz Adriano set him up with the most stunning turn inside the area.
Gers too were still a threat, and only another last-ditch clearance from Melgarejo prevented Middleton’s cutback at the end of another break from the visitors from making it 4-2.
Then, in the space of two minutes, the game turned on its head. Again, McGregor was called into action with another stunning save to deny Popov, but the ball span up and onto the head of Adriano to nod into the back of the net with the Gers keeper stranded.
Then almost straight from kick-off, Spartak regained the ball and drove forward through Sofiane Hanni, with his eventual shot on goal taking a wicked deflection off Connor Goldson to spin up and away from McGregor for 4-3 to the home side.
But for the bar, it would have been 5-3 with Gers failing to defend an Adriano free-kick which Bocchetti headed goalwards.
However the visitors came just as close to levelling things when Katic got on the end of an injury time corner, only to see the ball crash back off the post and roll across the face of goal, just out of reach of a series of Rangers players.
RANGERS: McGregor; Tavernier, Goldson, Katic, Flanagan (Halliday 82); Coulibaly (Grezda 82), Arfield, Ejaria (McAuley 90); Candeias, Middleton, Morelos.
SUBS NOT USED: Foderingham, Jack, McCrorie, Worrall.
FC SPARTAK MOSKVA: Maksimenko, Fernando, Adriano (Ze Luis 81), Bocchetti, Melgarejo, Eremenko (Glushakov 60), Kutepov, Zobnin, Popov (Timofeev. 71), Rasskazon, Hanni.
SUBS NOT USED: Rebrov, Dzhikiya, Lomovitski, Eschenko.
REFEREE: Ivan Bebek (Croatia)