A 90th minute penalty secured Rangers a vital away win in Belgium tonight in a seven goal thriller against Royal Antwerp at the Bosuilstadion.
Borna Barisic’s late spot kick ensured a deserved victory in a crazy night of football which saw seven goals, three penalties, a sending off and two Rangers players leaving the field through injury.
The win makes Rangers favourites to progress to the last 16 of the Europa League for the second successive season, whilst currently sitting four wins away from their first league title since 2011.
But Barisic’s late spot-kick ensured there was a happy ending to an unbelievable night.
Fil Helander, Scott Arfield, Glen Kamara, Kemar Roofe and Alfredo Morelos all started as Steven Gerrard made five changes to the side which beat Kilmarnock on Saturday, with Leon Balogun, Ryan Jack, Ianis Hagi, Cedric Itten and Ryan Kent all having to settle for a place on the bench.
Rangers started brightly and could have had a penalty when the ball appeared to come off Maxime Le Marchand’s arm. The referee and VAR agreeing that there was no case to answer.
Tavernier and Arfield both had efforts from distance which went over the bar, then Antwerp had a chance when De Laet shot just wide of Allan McGregor’s right-hand post.
Then came the first major moment of the night when James Tavernier sustained an injury which ended his involvement in the game. The Englishman went in for a 50-50 tackle with Martin Hongla and appeared to damage his knee. The Rangers captain tried to play on but had to be replaced by Leon Balogun.
The injury looks like it has the potential to be a serious one. The timing of it almost cruel given the recent shenanigans of Nathan Patterson meaning there is not an obvious replacement.
Before the half was up Rangers would also lose Kemar Roofe to yet another calf injury. Before he went off, however, Roofe had a huge part to play in Rangers’ opening goal.
Connor Goldson played a long ball to Roofe, who chested it down and made his way to goal. Alireza Beiranvand in the Antwerp goal should have collected, but spilled it then chased it so far out his box that Joe Aribo was able to pass the ball into an empty net from 20 yards.
Rangers then dominated for a period an appeared to be going in with a half-time lead until a crazy seven minute spell saw them behind.
First Felipe Avenatti looped a header over Allan McGregor after a good free-kick from Ritchie De Laet.
Then referee Georgi Kabakov made the first of a few questionable decisions which allowed Antwerp to go in at half-time with the lead.
Firstly he bizarrely played three minutes over the announced four minutes of injury-time.
Then he awarded the softest of penalties when Lior Refaelov threw himself to the ground after a challenge from Steven Davis. Incredibly VAR officials agreed with the decision and Refaelov heaped on the misery by scoring from the spot.
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Rangers started the second-half strongly and should have equalised when Joe Aribo was put through by the impressive Glen Kamara, only to see his effort cleared off the line. Beiranvand in the Antwerp goal overstretched himself in attempting to save Aribo’s shot and would leave the field a few minutes later to be replaced by Ortwin De Wolf.
Then VAR came to Rangers aid in the 58th minute when Morelos shirt was tugged by De Laet after a great cross from Barisic. The referee initially allowed play to go on but was instructed by VAR officials to review the incident. The result of the review was an amended decision and penalty, which Borna Barisic hammered home to equalise.
Again Rangers started to dominated but incredibly they found themselves behind again after Martin Hongla finished well from outside the box on 67 minutes.
Hagi came on for Scott Arfield in 74 minutes and should have scored a few minutes later when Barisic sent in a great cross which the Romanian put just wide.
But Rangers wouldn’t be denied for long, and Ryan Kent equalised on 83 minutes after a nice give-and-go with Morelos allowed the substitute to fire home an excellent goal to pull Rangers level again.
It felt like there was more drama and goals to come in the game - and that was the case.
Kent came close to scoring again when he was through on goal, only to be denied by outstretched leg of De Wolf. Then almost immediately some slack play from Joe Aribo put Martin Hongla in on goal, only for McGregor to block in a similar fashion to De Wolf with an outstretched leg.
Then Antwerp came close again after McGregor saved brilliantly again from a Abdoulaye Seck header, with Ryan Jack then clearing De Laet's shot off the line from close range.
Then came the winner. Rangers broke up the park and Ryan Kent’s effort on goal struck the hand of Seck. The defender had been booked earlier in the game and saw red. Barisic stepped up again to fire home the all-important winner.
But the drama wasn’t finished there, and Antwerp came close to equalising when Koji Miyoshi struck the post – the final act in an unbelievable night of football.
Steven Gerrard said after the game: "I'm obviously very pleased with the outcome of the game in terms of the result. I think the boys showed amazing character to fight for the right result.
"It was a crazy match. I'm sure the neutrals enjoyed it but as a coach I'll be looking into it because we had too many issues defensively.
"The goals we've conceded are poor from our point of view. There is certainly work and a lot of improving to do.
"At this level, you get punished a lot more.
"We've put ourselves in a promising position and it's very difficult to win away from home.
"So there's a lot of me that's pleased and proud but there's still things going around in my head about needing to improve defensively."
ANTWERP: Beiranvand, Seck, Le Marchand, De Laet, Buta, Boya, Hongla, Lukaku, Refaelov, Gerkens, Avenatti.
SUBS: De Wolf, Verstraete, Miyoshi, Nsimba, Opoku Ampomah, Gelin, Chevaughn, Pavlic, Van Den Bosch.
RANGERS: McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Helander, Barisic, Davis, Kamara, Arfield, Aribo, Roofe, Morelos.
SUBS: McLaughlin, Simpson, Hagi, Jack, Itten, Kent, Wright, Stewart, Balogun.
REFEREE: Georgi Kabakov (BUL)
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