Two down after an hour? Yes, but also two down within an hour. Watch the recording enough and you’ll spot the little Europa League clock up the top left of BT Sport’s screen is actually at 58 minutes and 39 seconds as the reverse shot from Abel Ruiz flies into Allan McGregor’s bottom-right corner.
A domestic season disintegrating amid refereeing errors outmatched by our own incompetence; Now, from a wrongly-awarded throw-in, Braga turn us inside-out to become the first visiting side to score two against Steven Gerrard’s Rangers in Europe.
Yet another wet, stormy night; This goal is engineered and scored amid the insolent remnants of the huge, regal, Broomloan-sized tifo unfurled pre-kick off. It’s now reduced to bin bags blowing untidily across the badly exposed pitch like so much flotsam washed up by the blue, blue, blue sea of Ibrox on which it was launched.
Fifty nine: After 59 minutes on the 20/02/2020 we were 0-2, v Braga in Hummel chevrons familiar to us but with change shorts removing their usual colour scheme from confusion with Arsenal. They looked relatable but unique, neither too different nor too ordinary. Their opening goal, pinged in from a distance almost as long as the Brazilian scorer’s full name, may have stemmed from a Rangers mistake but, in execution, looked so much like one of Ryan Jack’s brace at Ross County earlier in the season.
In short, my admiration for the visitors was matching my sadness for us hosts. These guys were slick, cool and classy. If it had to be anyone I was glad it was them. In Europe, Stevie G’s Gers don’t do Hearts- and Hamilton-style humiliations. We beat who we should beat and only lose after epic struggles.
Braga did induce some boos at this point. They were taking so long to celebrate the goal which had surely won the tie. But most of us were quite happy for them to take their time. This was a team who hadn’t lost their previous 13 European ties. They’d done super rich Wolves at Molineux. The BT clock hits 60:02 before Ruiz is back in his own half and Ryan Kent can finally restart the game. Sixty minutes:
I spent much of the next five minutes worrying we might get skelped. We don’t embarrass anyone in Europe under Gerrard but we don’t get embarrassed. Then it hit off the back of number 60 and into the Copland net and within a heartbeat we’re winning 3-2 and, six days later, amid unseasonal sun and Iberian balm, precisely as the clock hit 60:00, Connor Goldson made the interception which led to the only goal of the night – the killer pass played by Ianis Hagi, the man who’d really won the tie, who was born on 22 October 1998, the night we beat Bayer in Leverkusen in the UEFA Cup. I wondered who we’d draw in the next round...
To misquote a German born ten months before Bayer Leverkusen, to write poetry in the middle of a global pandemic is barbaric. But Theodor Adorno was an accomplished composer as well as a renowned philosopher, and he wouldn’t fail to see the lyrical symbolism of Steven Gerrard’s two European campaigns as Rangers manager.
Gerrard’s first competitive game in charge of our club was a Europa League qualifier first leg, won comfortably at Ibrox on, of all 2018 dates, the 12th of July. The last game his Rangers played before we entered those four Covid-afflicted months without our club – when over 46,000 Rangers fans last breathed the same air as our team - was a Europa League Round of 16 first leg.
Between times he led us through two epic qualifying round campaigns and two exhaustingly tight group stages. Rangers produced the most thrilling of all their performances to triumph over Braga in the 2019-20 round of 32 but “easy” is a rare concept in these unrelenting European runs. It’s fitting we’ve had to wait five months to play our 32nd UEFA competition game under Stevie G.
It’s trite to say even Covid-19 couldn’t put this side out of Europe. But one year before Gerrard’s arrival, our all-time most humiliating European result came, like a tacky limerick, against a club called Progres. From March to August 2020, while the SPFL divisional titles were called early and we pondered another domestic silverware blank, there was something almost inevitable about each leg of this tie straddling lockdown like a heroic couplet.
A second leg providing another 3-1 win for the away team would complete the most beautiful rhyme imaginable but, if I’m honest, this Thursday I just want to see us make a game of it - maybe even a tie.
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Leverkusen aren’t as match fit as ourselves, their last competitive game being the German Cup final of one month ago. They’re a side who missed out on the 2020-21 Champions League thanks to occasional, massive glitches in form, losing by the kind of score-line which would indeed put us into the 2019-20 Europa League quarter-finals. But their usual form is sublime. They can still easily qualify for that Champions League by winning this Europa League outright.
The total lack of fans in the Bay Arena this Thursday may have freaked them out slightly more than us if it hadn’t been for the fact they acclimatised to it when the Bundesliga restarted and completed 2019-20, from May to July. Most of that was live on BT Sport and Leverkusen, as the last team I’d seen win in the flesh, were of particular interest in this first few weeks of football back on the telly. They were as worryingly impressive from my sofa as they were from my seat in the Main Stand.
Wunderkind Kai Havertz may be off soon. However, even if he departed for pastures Chelsea before Thursday, Leverkusen have quality all over the park and seem to produce child prodigies faster than oor Alfie gains fat in the off-season. Florian Wirtz became, at one month over 17, the Bundesliga’s youngest ever scorer back in June with a consolation against Bayern bloody Munich.
Our own main hope is that Mr Morelos does like Daniel Cousin at Parkhead in August 2008 and advertises himself to the continent’s big spenders by putting in his finest performance yet. But even if, come kick-off, Alfie’s disinterested, 'unavailable' or even sold, it’s when you have the phrase “we’re up against it” on your lips, but can’t quite spit it out, that you realise exactly what Gerrard’s done for us.
Villarreal effectively beaten on away goals in two group stage draws with a Liga side; Rapid Vienna, Legia Warsaw, Porto and Feyenoord beaten at home – the last three all unable to beat us on their own patches; Braga beaten home and away when we suspected they may be a step too far and then looked like a side on a different level for one sobering Ibrox hour.
For me it’s easy to imagine Gerrard communicates to his side what he experienced as a player: Being expected to win, especially domestically, can be a burden – up against it, usually in Europe, invariably produces magic.
For every domestic embarrassment under Stevie there is a nine men in Ufa, a one down after mere seconds at El Madrigal and a heading for extra time knowing one slip against Legia Warsaw denies us the group stages. We’ve only conceded four goals once under Stevie G and that was during a crazy Muscovite night which saw us winning 3-2 and have a perfectly good fourth disallowed. He may have won more European trophies as a player than Rangers have in their entire history but we’re a club that should always worry Leverkusen.
Surviving in Europe, in terms of pure time, longer than any other Scottish club in any one season is another strange boast to add to our historic continental collection. As well as becoming the first side ever barred from defending a European trophy (1972), we enjoyed Europe’s biggest ever quarter-final win (1960-61) the season after we suffered the biggest ever European semi-final loss (1959-60) – both against German clubs.
As a player Gerrard won the previous version of the competition, also in North Rhine-Westphalia, in nearby Dortmund. He scored in that final (along with his current assistant Gary McAllister), just as he did in Istanbul when things seemed impossible for his side in his first Champions League final. After he hit the net in Istanbul Liverpool still trailed 3-1, just as Rangers do going into Thursday’s game.
My ambition is always for us to win the tie. If we do, watch out world. But what I need at the very least is our result against Leverkusen, the only side to score three at Ibrox against Stevie G, to make a respectable closing line for these two epic European runs. Everyone involved deserves a standing ovation, even if it is from our sofas.
Reflecting on our most recent Europa League campaigns, our support must understand they’re more than the equivalent of lifting either domestic cup – that, in terms of marking our progress under Gerrard, they have been sheer poetry.
Possible team (4-3-3):
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