Rangers’ Europa League dreams are hanging by a thread after a 3-1 defeat by Bayer Leverkusen – including the first VAR decision made at Ibrox.
Gerrard made two changes from the weekend win over Ross County as James Tavernier and Scott Arfield returned to the side ahead of Matt Polster and Ianis Hagi to take on Peter Bosz’s side.
Hagi’s omission didn’t go down well with fans before kick-off and it was a bold call by Gerrard to axe one of the players who were so instrumental in turning around the first leg against Braga in the last round.
The Gers went into the game looking to extend a seventeen-game unbeaten run in Europe at Ibrox – a run in which the Light Blues had only conceded eight goals.
Leverkusen were aiming to take a step closer to progressing beyond the last 16 in the Europa League for the first time – if the competition gets that far – and make up for their disappointing Champions League campaign which saw them finish third to Juventus and Atletico Madrid in their group.
Rangers looked happy to give up possession to the visitors early on and press them from halfway as Leverkusen appeared more than comfortable to play the ball around and create gaps.
Bellarabi had a couple of early half-chances without ever really making McGregor work and there seemed to be a real game of strategy set to unfold on the battered Ibrox turf.
Gerrard’s side have looked more comfortable in European games when they are the underdogs – despite the row when Ryan Kent said as much after the Braga game – with the industrious midfield trio of Davis, Kamara and Arfield set for a particularly busy night.
With Leverkusen controlling the tempo, there was an early booking for Glen Kamara after a late tackle on Weiser in the middle of the park, ruling the Finn out of the return leg.
As the 20th-minute ticked by Rangers had struggled to really get any foothold in the game going forward, although Leverkusen weren’t all that threatening in the final third either as both keepers were virtual spectators.
The Gers then had their own brief spell of control as the game entered the final 15 minutes of the first half but it was quickly halted before a lengthy delay as the referee reviewed VAR for a potential handball by George Edmundson.
After going over and checking for himself, the referee finally pointed to the spot – Edmundson could have few complaints – and Kai Havertz stepped up to take the spot-kick as the boos rained down on the German.
The wonderkid was as probably the coolest person inside Ibrox as he went to take the penalty and casually stroked it beyond McGregor.
Rangers looked far from beaten after going a goal down but too many times it was the Gers who were the cause of their own moves breaking down as passes failed to find their target or players mistimed their runs.
With the Gers going in 1-0 down at the break, it was still all to play for in the second half but Gerrard will have walked up the Ibrox tunnel knowing his side had to perform better.
The Rangers boss kept faith with the XI who finished the opening 45 as the Gers returned to the pitch after the break as they looked to perform a similar turnaround to the one in the previous round.
It didn’t take too long for Gerrard to turn to his subs though as Florian Kamberi was introduced with 53 minutes with Aribo limping off after seemingly tweaking his hamstring.
Rangers had their best chance of the game soon after when good work by Kamberi and Tavernier sent Morelos in on goal and the Colombian came alive as he chased the ball down, only to see his shot pushed wide for a corner.
There was a real lift in the atmosphere as the Gers started to get themselves back into the game and the Light Blues started to show a little bit of urgency going forward.
The addition of Kamberi was a big part of the Gers’ finding more joy going forward and there suddenly looked like a real chance of an equaliser.
Rangers had Steven Davis to thank for keeping it at 1-0 after 65 minutes when the veteran popped up on the line to block Aranguiz’s strike as it sailed into the net with McGregor beaten.
It was 2-0 just a minute later as Aranguiz fired home brilliantly from Tavernier’s clearance as Rangers looked to be headed to their first Ibrox defeat in Europe since 2011.
Gerrard quickly reacted and brought Ianis Hagi off the bench but it seemed a little bit too late as the Romanian came on to replace Glen Kamara.
George Edmundson quickly killed that suggestion though when the defender made up for his earlier error in giving away the penalty when he was first to meet a corner and head home to quickly restore the enthusiasm of supporters and set up a frantic final 15 minutes.
It was so close to being level two minutes later when Barisic’s free-kick from the edge of the area whistled past the post as Gers fans started dreaming of another famous comeback.
The Germans almost grabbed a free-kick goal of their own when Aranguiz left McGregor’s crossbar shaking as the veteran keeper got the slightest of touches to his stunning effort.
With the clock ticking down, Gerrard made his final change as Matt Polster replaced James Tavernier for the final few minutes as Rangers pushed desperately for an equaliser.
The Gers’ hopes looked to be sunk with two minutes left on the clock when substitute Leon Bailey curled one home from inside the area after Polster gifted possession in midfield.
The scoreline probably flattered the Germans a little in the end but they were good value for their win as they took a step closer to the last eight.
Rangers: McGregor; Tavernier (Polster85′), Goldson, Edmundson, Barisic; Davis, Kamara (Hagi 68′); Aribo (Kamberi 53′), Arfield, Kent; Morelos
Subs: Foderingham, Ojo, Halliday, Katic,