RANGERS secured a fantastic first point in the Europa League group stage with a creditable 2-2 draw against Villarreal in Spain.
Steven Gerrard’s men twice bounced back from going behind and might have won it at the death through Scott Arfield.
Right from the moment Rangers touched down in Spain yesterday afternoon, it really has felt the club is back on the stage it should be, gearing up to face an opponent of real repute in front of the watching eyes of the entire continent.
It has been some journey to get here, but as Steven Gerrard alluded to in his press conference, he was determined for his side to not just make up the numbers in their Europa League group.
From the side which defeated Dundee 4-0 in the Scottish Premiership, out went the suspended Alfredo Morelos, with his place taken by Kyle Lafferty, while Nikola Katic switched to the bench with Gerrard handing a debut slot to Joe Worrall, the deadline-day arrival from Nottingham Forest.
Gers opponents, Villarreal’s Europa League pedigree is second to none. No club has played more games in the competition since its inception (62) nor has any club won more games (33) or scored more goals (104).
The finished fifth in last season’s La Liga, while their interest in this competition last season was ended at the Round of 32 stage.
But, right from kick-off, they showed their intent to perform even better than last season, and grabbed the opening goal inside a minute of kick-off.
Worrall and Connor Goldson had a mix up on the edge of the area, and that allowed the ball to drop for Colombian international Carlos Bacca, who lobbed Allan McGregor from 25-yards with a superb effort.
Gers responded brightly, however, and Scott Arfield was inches away from connecting to a volley just inside the area from a Kyle Lafferty knock-down after James Tavernier had delivered a typically quality free-kick.
That chance came in spite of seemingly constant Villarreal pressure, but around the 25-minute mark, Gers seemed to settle into the game and began to pass the ball about with much more conviction, and territorially too, Gerrard’s men were beginning to really come into the game without ever really threatening Andres Fernandez in the home goal.
McGregor was forced into a decent stop in the 41st minute from the terrific Santi Cazorla, who let fly from 25-yards, with that effort coming against the run of play at that time.
Four minutes into the second half, and Villarreal really should have doubled their lead. After charging from his goal to deny Karl Toko Ekambi in a one-on-one situation, Allan McGregor’s clearance only went as far as Carlos Bacca 25-yards from goal who shot wide of the untended net.
Minutes later. Ekambi then fired wildly over the bar when umarked at the back post with Gers short in numbers at the back.
At the other end, a Daniel Candeias snapshot from distance narrowly slipped wide before a tremendous volley from Alfonso Pedraza narrowly cleared McGregor’s bar, while the Gers stopper was forced into a wonder-save from Ramiro Funes-Mori after his shot from the edge of the area took a deflection.
Then, in the 67th minute, sensationally and probably deservedly, Rangers drew level. A stunning run from James Tavernier ended with him sliding a perfect ball to his right for Daniel Candeias, who had made a well-timed run into the penalty area.
He then cut the ball back for Scott Arfield who lashed the ball into the roof of the net to send the huge band of outstanding Rangers supporters delirious.
Their joy, however, was short lived. From the restart, Gers never really got back up to full speed, and Villarreal went back in front. Substitute Gerard Moreno made a great run down the right, cut inside Borna Barisic and found the bottom near-corner with McGregor well beaten.
It was a major blow to Gers, but again, against this top quality outfit, they came back and levelled the game once again on 75 minutes.
A tremendous ball up the wing from Glenn Middleton played-in Barisic, and he squared delightfully for Kyle Lafferty at the front post to again bring that section of Bears in the Estadio de la Ceramica to life.
It was a deserved goal for Lafferty, who had turned in a sensational shift all evening, and he ran to celebrate with Gers fitness coach Jordan Milsom.
Indeed, right from kick-off, it very nearly got even better for Gers, with Tavernier cruising through the middle of the park, feeding Middleton to his left before the youngster lashed a shot into the side netting.
A knock to Borna Barisic in the final ten minutes saw the introduction of Graham Dorrans, and he almost laid on the winner for Arfield in the final minute of normal time.
The midfielders combined on the edge of the box, but Arfield’s poke at the ball was smothered by the home goalkeeper.
The visitors then survived a pair of late scares when Moreno and Bacca flashed headers wide and over in injury time, but again Rangers showed their resolve to see things out an get points on the board in their opening fixture of the group.
RANGERS: McGregor; Tavernier, Goldson, Halliday, Candeias (McCrorie, 76), Coulibaly,(Middleton 70) Kent, Barisic (Dorrans, 85), Worrall, Arfield, Lafferty.
SUBS NOT USED: Foderingham, Sadiq, Katic, Grezda.
VILLARREAL: Fernandez, Funes Mori (Moreno, 66) Ruiz, Fornals, Bacca, Sansone, Llambrich, Pedraza, Ekambi (Tigueros, 60), Cazorla, Bonera.
SUBS NOT USED: Asenjo, Gaspar, Layun, Morlanes, Chukweze.
REFEREE: Istvan Kovacs