Rangers will travel to Portugal with the most unlikely of leads next week after a stunning 3-2 win over Braga at Ibrox after finding themselves 2-0 down with 20 minutes left of their Europa League round of 32 first-leg tie.
Braga will return home wondering quite how they managed to come away from the game with nothing as the Gers picked up a win that will live long in the memory.
The Gers made two changes from Sunday’s win as Borna Barisic and Glen Kamara returned to the starting XI at the expense of Andy Halliday and the suspended Ryan Jack.
There was an early scare for the Gers as Allan McGregor was forced into a fantastic save from a Braga set-piece just three minutes in as Braga started the game well – Ruiz had far too much space to get a header at goal but McGregor showed brilliant reflexes to keep it out and avoid going 1-0 down so early.
Rangers had an excellent chance of their own just a few minutes later when Alfredo Morelos beat the offside trap and fired a ball across goal for Ryan Kent but the former Liverpool man was inches away from getting on the end of it.
An absolute stunner from Fransérgio! 🚀
Allan McGregor stood no chance 😧
Braga claim an away goal at Ibrox… pic.twitter.com/4XiXjPaSD3
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) February 20, 2020
Braga’s impressive early start paid off when they took the lead just 10 minutes in after some sloppy play in midfield – but there was no taking away from the quality.
Glen Kamara and Scott Arfield failed to keep control of the ball and Fransergio fired home an absolute screamer from distance which McGregor could only try get a hand on as it swerved away from the Ibrox keeper and into the top corner.
There was a massive penalty shout for Rangers a few minutes after going behind when Hagi went down under a challenge from Braga keeper Matheus but the referee saw nothing in it and let the game go on.
With a 1-0 lead, Braga looked more than comfortable playing simple passes around and letting the Rangers players chase the ball on the heavy Ibrox pitch.
Rangers had far from given up though and when the Gers did get the ball, they looked to get forward and pick holes in the Braga defence – although the Gers’ slackness ended moves more than once.
Ibrox burst back into life 25 minutes in when Morelos had an excellent chance to draw the Gers back level.
Hagi’s wonderful ball forward sent Morelos charging forward and but the Colombian couldn’t get enough of an angle to beat Matheus and could only fire his shot off the keeper’s legs.
Morelos was really starting to have some success against the Braga defence and again forced a good save from Matheus as the Gers looked to exploit substitute Galeno, who was being played out of position as a right wing-back.
As the opening 45 ticked away, there was an excellent piece of football from Braga as they played through Rangers from practically their own goal-line before Allan McGregor eventually intervened to clear the danger.
There was more disappointment for Rangers with a few minutes until the break when Morelos picked up the booking that will rule him out of Wednesday’s return game.
It should have been 2-0 almost immediately after the restart when Kamara headed the ball to nobody, gifting possession to the Portuguese and only avoiding going further behind after Paulinho took a really poor touch.
The horrific start to the second 45 continued as Fransergio almost got his second of the evening but his strike cannoned off the top of the bar and away.
With Braga taking control of proceedings in the first ten minutes after the break, much like they had in the opening 45, Gerrard turned to his bench and introduced Joe Aribo for the disappointing Glen Kamara to try regain some control in midfield.
Rangers finally had their first real chance of the second period when the ball fell for Morelos in the box and the 29-goal striker forced a good save from Matheus before coming even closer seconds later as Braga showed some of their own defensive weaknesses.
The Gers suddenly looked much more like they could take something from the game and the Ibrox crowd once again responded to what they were seeing on the pitch after letting their frustrations show earlier.
The sucker punch Rangers were fearing arrived at the worst possible time as Abel Ruiz scored a stunning goal to make it 2-0 as Braga became the first side to score more than one goal against Rangers in a European tie at Ibrox since Stuttgart in 2009.
Ruiz’ strike didn’t dampen the Gers hopes of getting back into the tie as Morelos forced yet another save from the impressive Matheus in the Braga goal almost immediately after the visitors had doubled their advantage.
The Gers’ persistence paid off as Ianis Hagi scored his second goal for the club following his deadline day move and almost blew the roof off Ibrox.
Hagi squeezed his shot in at the near post after cutting inside and it set up a grandstand finale for the Gers as they looked to get back on level terms.
Gerrard also made his second change in the wake of Hagi’s goal as Florian Kamberi came on to replace Ryan Kent before Borna Barisic was forced off injured a minute or two later with Greg Stewart taking his place.
A lifeline for Rangers! 💪
Ianis Hagi scores what could be a crucial goal for the Ibrox side.
His father Gheorghe loves it! 😊 pic.twitter.com/q5JmZzuWtA
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) February 20, 2020
Braga’s Galeno was lucky not to see red for his challenge on Barisic and, hopefully, he’s ok for the weekend after only just returning from injury.
The lift Hagi’s goal had given the Gers was clear and before long the Light Blues were back on level terms as Joe Aribo played super sub.
The Nigerian slalomed his way beyond several defenders before firing the ball home to complete what had seemed the unlikeliest of comebacks.
Aribo had really impressed since coming off the bench 15 minutes earlier and the former Charlton star really looked hungry after losing his place in the starting XI to Glen Kamara.
The Gers won a free-kick on the edge of the area and, after a bit of a delay to take it, Hagi stepped up and fired home (thanks to a GIANT deflection) to make it 3-2.
After going 2-0 down, the Gers looked like they were beaten and simply playing to avoid an even heavier defeat and have Ibrox absolutely rocking.
With every passing minute, Rangers grew in confidence as Braga looked like the side who had struggled to even get the basics right earlier in the game.
The four minutes of injury time passed in what felt like more time than the 86 that had come before but when the referee’s whistle finally signalled the end of the game, it was met with a incredible roar that showed just how much the win meant to Rangers fans.
Rangers: McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Katic, Barisic (Stewart 72′), Arfield, Davis, Kamara (Aribo 53′), Hagi, Morelos, Kent (Kamberi 68′)
Subs not used: Foderingham, Edmundson, Halliday, Barker.
Braga: Matheus, Ruiz (Ricardo Horta 69′), Wallace (Galeno 12′), Paulinho, Fransergio, Raul Silva, Bruno Viana, Ricardo Esgaio, Joao Palhinha (Novais 82′), Francisco Trincao.
Subs not used: Tiago Sa, Diogo Viana, Andre Horta, Rui Fonte.