If Rangers get the result they require next week in Yerevan to secure passage to the Europa League group stages for the fourth consecutive season under Steven Gerrard, then John Lundstram will owe his teammates a huge debt of gratitude.
It was the Englishman’s sending off late in the first-half which put a huge question mark over a tie which was deemed as a fairly routine affair for Rangers, although they had huffed and puffed for large parts of the first-half.
But Lundstram’s dismissal, after a second booking, put Rangers in a speculative position, and one which will not have pleased manager Steven Gerrard.
All the chat prior to the game surrounded the capture of Juninho Bacuna from Huddersfield Town. The 24 year Dutch midfielder provides further options for Gerrard in an area where he has not been short of problems so far this season.
Speaking to Rangers TV Bacuna seemed delighted at his move.
“There was interest last season, unfortunately it didn’t go through”, said the Dutchman.
"I am ready to prove myself and learn from the boys, learn from the manager. I am ready to get started and I can’t wait.
"I had experience in the Premier League and unfortunately it didn’t go like I wanted but I will take the experience from that and bring it here and show what I can do here.
"I think the style the team is going to play will suit me and I think I can be at my best here."
This was a tie that Rangers had hoped to avoid, but the capitulation against Malmö last week ended the prospect of reaching the Champions’ League group stages and the riches that come with it. The two defeats to Malmo are the first that Steven Gerrard has experienced as Rangers manager in Europe in qualifying stages. He is well versed in these Europa qualification ties, which added to the sense of inevitability to tonight’s game.
However Rangers looked slow and ponderous in a poor first-half where the only real chance fell to Ryan Kent when he somehow managed to strike the bar when scoring seemed easier.
The Englishman has struggled so far this season to find the form which has him highly tipped for a big money move at some point in the future. This was the latest in a line of performances littered with loose distribution, wild attempts at goal and attempted runs which resulted in possession being lost. Gerrard has been remarkably loyal to Kent during other periods of poor form. The fact that Kent did not reappear for the second-half suggested the manager’s patience with one of his mainstays had worn too thin on an important evening for the club.
Kent’s replacement was Scott Wright, a player who must be wondering what he has to do to earn a start. The former Aberdeen man’s running and urgency gave life to a support that had started to doubt. All of a sudden there was an improved vigour about Rangers’ play.
At the heart of that was Alfredo Morelos. He had a hooked shot cleared off the line, then headed wide when he should have scored after a great cross in from Ianis Hagi.
But the Columbian got the goal he deserved on 68 minutes when he latched on to a long ball from James Tavernier and drove the ball low and hard through the legs of Cancarevic to give Rangers a deserved lead.
Rangers should have made it 2-0 when Connor Goldson headed wide from close range, meaning Rangers would have to settle for the one goal lead going into the second-leg.
The result is a positive one given the circumstances, but there is yet again feeling that Rangers had somehow managed to take less from a game they were in a position to take a lot more from.
Much of the talk will centre on Lundstram and his reckless sending off. His first booking, for a trip on David Khurtsidze, could be deemed as taking one for the team. But second booking, for a pull on Jose Embalo after he had needlessly ceded possession, was an incredulous act of naivety for a player who came to Scotland boasting English Premier League experience. The Liverpudlian has had a poor start to his Rangers career, he needs to realise the required levels soon if he doesn’t want to join a long list of players who found the Rangers jersey too heavy for them.
For Steven Gerrard the result leaves him with problems he would have rather avoided. A more convincing scoreline would have allowed him to avoid taking some key players on a ten hour all-round flight to Armenia three days before the first Old Firm game of the season, and that frustration showed in his post-match comments.
“In terms of our performance collectively it was so far away from how I wanted it to look in the first-half. It is difficult for me to comment on that”, said the Rangers manager.
“At half-time the players listened to the information we gave them and we went out and carried it out. I am sure the fans appreciated their efforts in the second-half.
“But in the first-half? Honestly, it was so far away from how I want it to look and how far away I need it to look.”
Rangers now head to Dingwall on Sunday for the league game against Ross County, before travelling to Armenia for the second-leg on Thursday and “welcoming” Celtic for the first Old Firm game of the season next Sunday.
It’s a busy schedule, and one which will require more than Rangers offered in the first-half tonight.
RANGERS: McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Helander, Bassey, Lundstram, Davis, Aribo, Hagi, Kent, Morelos.
SUBS: McLaughlin, McCrorie, Itten, Simpson, Patterson, Wright, Balogun, Kelly, Arfield, Barisic
ALASHKERT: Cancarevic, Voskanyan, Kadio, Tiago Cameta, Boljevic, Grigoryan, Hovsepyan, Papikyan, Khurtsidze, James, Jose Embalo.
SUBS: Yedigaryan, Gome, Aghekyan, Bezecourt, Glisic, Tankov
REFEREE: Anastasios Sidriopoulos
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