Rangers saw off Royal Antwerp in an astonishing Europa League clash which saw a red card, three penalties, three injuries and a string of baffling referreeing decisions tonight – winning 4-3 in a breathtaking tie in Belgium.
The win came at a cost after the Gers lost James Tavernier and Kemar Roofe to injury and Gerrard will be hoping their injuries aren’t serious with a crucial run of games in the coming weeks.
Bulgarian referee Georgi Kabakov was a constant source of frustration for the Light Blues throughout making a series of baffling decisions, particularly the penalty decision in favour of the hosts in the final minutes of the opening 45 – one of three spot kicks given – but the Gers will be ecstatic to have grabbed the win as Gerrard’s side levelled the club record of 23 European wins under Walter Smith.
The Gers made five changes to the starting XI from the weekend win over Kilmarnock as Filip Helander, Glen Kamara Scott Arfield, Kemar Roofe and Alfredo Morelos all returned to the side for the clash. [Rangers TV]
That mean Leon Balogun, Ryan Jack, Ianis Hagi, Ryan Kent and Cedric Itten all made way, with Gerrard confirming there was a slight injury issue with Ryan Kent which meant he wasn’t wanting to risk the winger.
While the Gers reached the last 16 last season, it is 28 years since The Great Old’s last appearance in the last 32 and Gerrard’s side are now in pole position to reach the last 16.
Just four minutes in there was a penalty shout for the Light Blues after the ball appeared to hit the arm of an Atwerp defender but, after a VAR check, nothing was given and the hosts breathed a sigh of relief.
Replays cast doubt on whether the VAR officials got it right, although it would probably have been a little bit on the harsh side had it been given.
Both sides looked eager to get on the ball and push forward at speed, but it was the hosts who had the best early chances at goal as they looked to break the deadlock.
Antwerp trying to press Rangers high made things difficult for the Light Blues to get the time they wanted on the ball and it led to a couple of promising moves breaking down for the Gers in the opening 15 minutes.
There was a close escape for the Gers when Borna Barisic lost his footing as Antwerp broke into the area, the Croatian having his blushes spared when Rangers – eventually – managed to clear their lines.
Skipper James Tavernier picked up an injury a few moments later competing for a 50/50, initially appearing to run it off before breaking down and requiring treatment twice then being replaced by Leon Balogun.
Losing Tavernier for any length of time will be a massive blow at such a vital stage of the season and, in the wake of Nathan Patterson’s Covid stupidity, Gerrard will be hoping it is just a knock.
The Light Blues actually started to take control of the game after Tavernier limped off, Morelos having a fantastic chance to break the deadlock just a few minutes later but finished poorly.
Gaps started to appear in the Antwerp defence more and more often as the first half wore on, Kemar Roofe having a couple of decent opportunities to get at goal but failing to take advantage.
Seven minutes before the break the goal that Rangers were looking for finally came, Goldson’s ball over the top causing huge problems in the Antwerp defence and creating an opportunity for Aribo to fire home from distance and the Nigerian obliged to keep up Rangers record of scoring in every away game in Europe so far this season.
The Antwerp keeper should have done far, far better than he did but credit also needs to go to Alfredo Morelos for his role in keeping the ball and creating the chance for Aribo to slot the ball home.
It was little more than Rangers deserved after taking control of the game following Tavernier’s injury and there had been little from the Belgians to suggest they were likely to turn the game around quickly.
However with just second left in the opening 45, Felipe Avenatti looped a header home from the edge of the area from a set-piece wide on the left and Borna Barisic will be less than happy with his positioning, allowing Avenatti far too much room.
Joe Aribooooooooo! 💪
Calamitous from the Antwerp stopper, but that's a wonderful composed finish ✨
Rangers have their away goal! 👏 pic.twitter.com/YhsVzx6756
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) February 18, 2021
There was a second injury concern just before the break, Roofe also limping off to join Tavernier with the physios and Ryan Kent taking his place but the first-half drama still wasn’t over.
Six minutes into four minutes of injury-time, the hosts were awarded a penalty for an apparent foul by Steven Davis but replays showed virtually no contact whatsoever, allowing Rafaelov to score from the spot with the last kick of the half to make it 2-1.
It was an absolutely woeful decision from the official to give the spot-kick and the Rangers players were clearly bewildered as they made their way off at the break.
The second 45 almost picked up where the first left off as the Gers got caught trying to play out from the back before a number of indivual mistakes quickly followed.
Rangers had a fantastic chance to draw level eight minutes after the restart, countering quickly through Ryan Kent and Glen Kamara before the ball fell nicely for Aribo who looked like he had grabbed his second of the night before it was cleared by a defender with the keeper beaten.
Antwerp shotstopper Beiranvand was injured in the process of trying to keep Aribo’ effort out, forcing the Belgians into thinking about replacing him with rookie backup De Wolf – with the change eventually coming 20 minutes later.
The Gers players were furiously appealing for a penalty of their own after Morelos was pulled back going for a header, the referee again giving nothing, before eventually checking it on VAR and pointing to the spot.
With James Tavernier already off, Borna Barisic stepped up and fired home to draw the Gers level and set up a really fascinating final 30 minutes as Steven Gerrard looked for his 23rd win in Europe as Rangers boss.
Just a Rangers looked like taking control of the game, Antwerp made it 3-2, Hongla having all the time in the world to curl an effort away from Allan McGregor and in at the back post as the Gers defence completely lost their shape.
Glen Kamara looked to have been drawn to the ball and left the Antwerp midfielder acres of room on the edge of the area, forcing Rangers into chasing the game a bit to avoid taking a one-goal deficit back to Ibrox.
The Finn’s game would come to an end soon afterwards, Ryan Jack coming off the bench in place of him while Scott Arfield made way for Ianis Hagi – Aribo dropping back into midfield to accommodate the Romanian.
Rangers had a golden chance to draw level through Hagi, Barisic’s dangerous cross finding the Gers’ number 7 but he prodded the ball just wide from close range.
After the dramatic end to the opening 45, the second wasn’t going to fail to deliver and Ryan Kent scored a stunning equaliser to pull Rangers deservedly level.
The winger picked the ball up on the edge of the area, beating two men, playing a one-two with Alfredo Morelos and beating two more Antwerp players before curling the ball into the far corner.
Kent should have made it 4-3 moments later, De Wolf saving comfortably from his tame shot before Antwerp burst forward and forced an important save from Allan McGregor.
Ryan Jack was next to be the hero, clearing off he line with McGregor beaten as the final five minutes turned into a frenzy of attacking football from both sides.
Rangers were up the other end of the pitch within seconds and the referee finally made a decision the watching Gers fans were happy with – allowing Rangers’ Twitter guy to dig out everyone’s favourite template for a second time…
PENALTY TO RANGERS! pic.twitter.com/P2RICfetCl
— Rangers Football Club (@RangersFC) February 18, 2021
Just like the first time, Borna Barisic stepped up and, just like the first time, the Croatian scored to give Rangers a 4-3 lead and leave Gerrard’s side a matter of minutes to see out.
The end-to-end stuff wasn’t finished there as Antwerp hit the woodwork through substitute Miyoshi in the 94th minute but the Light Blues managed to get over the line and head back to Glasgow with a lead.
Antwerp: Beiranvand, Seck, Le Marchand, De Laet, Buta, Boya, Hongla, Lukaku, Rafaelov, Gerkens, Avenatti.
Subs: Chevaughn, De Wolf, Versraete, Miyoshi, Nsimba, Ampimah, Gelin, 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.
Here’s how Rangers fans on Twitter reacted as Gerrard’s ‘Walter-esque’ starting XI was confirmed for the Antwerp clash