Rangers inched closer to a potential spot in the inaugural UEFA Champions League final and set up a crunch Matchday 5 clash at Marseille with a gritty 2-1 win over Belgian champions Club Brugge at Ibrox Stadium.
After a hard fought 1-1 draw in Belgium two weeks earlier, Rangers took the victory and two crucial group stage points here with a somewhat fortunate winning goal from Scott Nisbet.
The Scottish champions had taken a first half lead courtesy of Ian Durrant before being reduced to 10 men as Mark Hateley was sent off for an elbow. A nicely worked goal from Lorenzo Staelens leveled the scores before a deflected cross from Nisbet took an awkward bounce to beat wrong footed goalkeeper Danny Verlinden.
Rangers entered this game tied for first place in Group A with Marseille after the 1-1 draw in Belgium and had continued their good domestic form. The Gers returned from Belgium and swept past Arbroath into the Scottish Cup semi finals, before stretching their unbeaten run in league play to 29 games with a draw at St. Johnstone and a win against Hibernian.
There was one change in the backline for Rangers from the draw in Belgium, with a returning Richard Gough replacing David Robertson. Both wingers were also benched from the Belgium draw, with Peter Huistra and Alexei Mikhailichenko being replaced by Durrant and Trevor Steven.
Scotland international striker Ally McCoist partnered Hateley in attack and was in prolific form, having netted 46 goals in 44 games so far on the season.
Brugge entered this game sitting one point behind joint Group A leaders Rangers and Marseille and sitting third place in the Belgian League. Since the draw with Rangers, Brugge had secured back to back wins in domestic play against RWD Molenbeek and Sporting Lokeren.
Like Rangers, Brugge had made three changes to the starting lineup from the last encounter, replacing the strong attacking duo of Foeke Booy and Tomasz Dziubinski with Stephan van der Heyden and Marc Schaessens who had scored two goals in the win over Lokeren. Defender Alex Querter was also replaced in the lineup by Laszlo Disztl who slotted into the back three alongside Rudi Cossey and Vital Borkelmans.
The Ibrox crowd were treated to the rare sight of Rangers wearing white at home for this clash, with Brugge competing in their traditional blue and black striped jerseys.
It was clear in the opening minutes that the windy and wet weather conditions would impact the game, with clearances rolling to an early stop and players struggling to take a touch out of their feet as the ball became stuck in the muddy pitch.
The first attacking foray by the home team came when McCoist took a quick free kick and fed Steven out wide before the England winger swung a high cross to the back post. John Brown attacked the back post only for Staelens to cut in front and head clear, the ball fell to Durrant who fired a shot that was blocked. Rangers recycled the attack and Steven played in Stuart McCall who charged to the byline and won a corner.
Steven swung in the corner but Brugge stood strong once more as Cossey headed the ball clear and sparked a dangerous counter attack. The pace of striker Daniel Amokachi was on show as he blew by Neil Murray before feeding Gert Verheyen who forced a good save from Andy Goram. The follow-up shot from Amokachi was hacked clear by Dave McPherson during what was a frenetic opening to the game.
Another Brugge attack saw Brown head clear a cross before Nisbet was forced to concede a corner under pressure from Van der Heyden. The corner was cleared by Steven but Rangers were soon soaking up pressure again and the pacey Amokachi glided by Van der Elst and sent over a teasing cross only for a foul by Schaessens on Gough to end the threat.
The game was an end to end affair in the early going and McCoist controlled a long ball forward before playing in a surging Brown down the left flank and the defender beat Peter Creve before forcing a corner. Durrant lifted the corner into the six yard box only for the cross to be easily dealt with by Verlinden.
Rangers won a 15th minute corner when Cossey headed behind a high ball into the penalty area, Steven drove in the corner and Hateley headed toward goal only for Van der Heyden to hack the ball clear. Brugge were immediately down the other end with the pace of Amokachi once more carrying the ball forward before his shot was blocked and Schaessens picked up the rebound to drill a shot well wide.
The home team won an attacking free kick but the set play came to nothing when a high ball lofted in by McCall was flicked harmlessly into the hands of Verlinden by Hateley. Rangers received another set play opportunity soon after when McCoist won a corner under a strong challenge from Cossey. The original ball into the area was booted clear by Borkelmans and a second ball into the area by Durrant fell to McPherson who teed up McCall to fire a shot straight at Verlinden.
Brugge were starting to creak under the pressure and another deep cross was headed clear by Creve only to fall at the feet of Brown who drilled a shot just wide.
Rangers had made an interesting tactical adjustment from the last game in Belgium where they had struggled with the extra central man in the Brugge midfield lining up as a 4-4-2 against a 3-5-2.
This time, while Steven appeared to be playing a more traditional right wing role in a 4-4-2 type formation, the left side saw Durrant float inside as an extra central player to match the numbers, leaving left back Brown to perform what would be more commonly referred to as a wingback role in the modern game.
Brown was involved on the attacking end once more when his cross was half cleared to Steven who played in McCoist with a lovely backheel flick before Verlinden raced off his line to stifle McCoist and race back to collect the deflected ball.
Both teams were full of attacking intent and Amokachi burst forward once again and passed to Franky van der Elst who teed up Verheyen to shoot straight at Goram.
Brugge wingback Schaessens launched another attack soon after when he picked up possession inside his own half and threaded a delightful pass to release Verheyen but the midfielder skewed his shot well wide when 1v1 with Goram.
A long ball forward from Nisbet was knocked down by Steven to Hateley and the England international winger found McCoist with a cross only for the striker to skew his finish wide from close range. From the resulting goal kick, Brugge worked the ball from one end of the field to the other and Verheyen was released again with the shot being guided straight at Goram.
Nigeria international striker Amokachi took a touch around Gough and drove into the penalty area and teed up van der Heyden to direct another finish into the hands of Goram.
The deadlock was broken in the 39th minute when a long ball forward from Goram was set back to Steven by Hateley and the right winger threaded an inch perfect through ball to Durrant who tucked the finish past Verlinden. The goal saw Durrant start wide left and time his run to perfection before collecting the pass and giving Rangers the lead.
What looked like another routine long punt forward from Goram in the 44th minute would have a massive impact on the game, as Hateley elbowed Staelens while challenging for the ball. After the elbow, the pair tussled back and forth before Hateley was shown a red card by referee Ryszard Wojcik to the audible shock of the Ibrox crowd.
Halftime arrived with the dismissal of Hateley having taken the wind out of what had been a raucous atmosphere after Durrant’s opener. Rangers manager Walter Smith would be forced to make some adjustments as his team looked to hold onto a vital lead and gain two points in what was a razor tight Group A as teams pushed for a place in the inaugural Champions League Final.
Rangers came out for the second half in a 4-4-1 shape with increased pressure on lone center forward McCoist to hold up play and carry the attack. Central midfielder Murray won an attacking wide free kick early in the second half and the cross of Steven from the set play was headed behind by Staelens for a corner. Steven drove the corner to the back post area where Verheyen rose above everybody to direct his header wide.
Undeterred by being a man down, Rangers were soon on the front foot again when a long ball forward released McCoist and the striker went down under a challenge from Disztl only for referee Wojcik to rule no penalty despite the cries of the home crowd.
With boos still ringing around the stadium aimed at the official, Brugge took the wind out of the sails of Rangers by leveling the scores in the 55th minute.
Taking advantage of Rangers having only one forward, Brugge defender Borkelmans pushed high up the field and fed left wingback Van der Heyden before overlapping. Van der Hayden cut inside to swap passes with Verheyen before playing in Staelens who finished to cap a beautiful, flowing move and tie the score ar 1-1.
The move that created the equalizing goal was started by a defender pushing upfield to create an overload and that was not an isolated incident throughout the second half. Brugge made the adjustment to capitalize on the dismissal of HAteley by pushing Borkelmans and Staelens forward while Cossey handled the lone threat of McCoist.
Momentum had well and truly turned with Brown receiving a yellow card soon after the goal as the defender hacked down a surging Verheyen who had burst forward from midfield on the dribble. The resulting free kick was sprayed wide by Van der Elst to Borkelmans and the subsequent cross was deflected wide by McCoist.
Rangers won a corner when McPherson launched a high ball forward into the swirling wind and the Brugge defense conceded a corner under pressure from Gough. Steven drove in the corner and a downward header from McPherson forced a sharp save from Verlinden to keep the scores level.
Brugge won a corner of their own when Van der Heyden was allowed time and space to fire a shot that was deflected behind by Murray. Van der Heyden drove the corner to the back post where Staelens had a shot blocked before a second ball into the area was headed wide by Disztl.
Another set play opportunity soon followed when Staelens drove forward and fed Amokachi who had his shot deflected behind for a corner. McPherson headed the corner clear before the attack was recycled and a clearance from Murray dropped to Van der Heyden who skewed a shot well wide.
Despite plowing a lone furrow up front, McCoist was still causing problems and nodded a high ball wide to Durrant who lifted a shot on goal that Creve hooked away for a corner. Durrant took the corner and lofted a high ball into the wind that was headed away by Van der Elst.
The game was heating up and an offside flag rescued Rangers when Van der Heyden released Amokachi before McCall beat a defender at the other end of the field and sent over a cross that Verlinden punched clear under pressure from McCoist. Verlinden would not do so well less than a minute later from another, more impactful cross.
Steven fired a cross into the back of McCall and the ball deflected into the path of Nisbet who floated in a high cross that took an unusual bounce in front of Verlinden. The spinning ball wrongfooted the goalkeeper and saw the ball roll agonizingly into the net to send the home team into a 2-1 lead. Television replays showed that the cross from Nisbet took a deflection that caused the spin on the ball which ultimately deceived Verlinden.
The visitors tried to respond immediately and the ball fell to Murray on the edge of the penalty area only for the resulting shot to fly high into the Ibrox crowd.
Brugge manager Hugo Broos made the first substitution of the game in the 76th minute and it would not have been a welcome sight for the Rangers players or fans. Schaessens was replaced by Dziubinski who had scored a goal and been so influential in the prior clash between the two teams in Belgium.
Defender Borkelmans burst forward once more and sent over a cross that fell to the dangerous Amokachi who had his shot deflected behind by McPherson to win a corner. The first corner from Van der Heyden was cleared behind by Brown before a short corner routine ended with a cross floating harmlessly into the arms of Goram.
With the game entering the final 10 minutes, impressive winger Steven skipped by his man and drove to the byline before cutting the ball back to McCoist who fired his shot over the crossbar.
Knowing they needed a result to stay within touching distance of the group leaders, Brugge poured forward and Staelens burst into the penalty area to win a corner under a challenge from McCall. The corner was headed away by Gough before a second cross was half cleared to Dziubinski who fired a shot that was crowded out by the stubborn Rangers defense. The pressure kept coming and Creve dribbled forward to win yet another corner after his cutback was deflected behind by McPherson. Creve drove in the corner and again the ball fell to Dziubinski with the Polish midfielder firing off a shot that was saved by Goram.
Rangers manager Smith drained some seconds off the clock in the 87th minute when goal scorer Durrant was replaced by David Hagen who had scored in the 3-0 league win over Hibernian the prior weekend. Substitute Hagen provided some respite from the pressure for Rangers when he showed composure on the ball and fed McCall who won a free kick inside the Brugge half.
Another free kick was awarded for a handball by Disztl and Brown took it quickly, exchanging passes with McCoist before firing a shot into the side netting. More time was drained off the clock when Steven guarded the ball by the corner flag with Brugge failing to create any more scoring chances before the final whistle blew to spark mass celebrations among the Ibrox faithful.
POST GAME FALLOUT
The win left Rangers tied for first place in Group A with a crunch game in France next up against joint leaders Marseille, a game they would now go into without suspended star striker Hateley. The French champions would carry the goal difference tie breaker advantage courtesy of hammering CSKA Moscow 6-0 in the group’s other fixture behind a Franck Suazee hat-trick.
Brugge now stood on the brink of elimination, needing Rangers and Marseille to draw while they beat CSKA Moscow by a heavy scoreline next time out to even have the chance of a last day tie breaker.
In the tournament’s other group, AC Milan extended their perfect record to four wins from four games with a 1-0 win over Porto courtesy of a Stefano Eranio strike. The Italian giants were now two points above second placed Gothenburg, and could seal a place in the final with a win or draw in their trip to Gothenburg during Matchday 5.
39’ RAN Ian Durrant (Trevor Steven) 1-0
55’ BRU Lorenzo Staelens (Franky Van der Elst) 1-1
75’ RAN Scott Nisbet (Stuart McCall) 2-1
MAN OF THE MATCH
#7 RM Trevor Steven (Rangers FC) – The England international winger created the opening goal with a slide rule pass to Durrant and was an attacking spark all game for the home team.
1: RM Trevor Steven – Man of the Match.
2: LD John Brown – Brown was involved on both the attacking and defensive end for Rangers all night, covering ground by the acre and holding Brugge in check while getting off shots and crosses at the other end.
3: GK Andy Goram – Shot stopper Goram racked up 10 saves, anchoring a strong defensive performance that set the table for Nisbet’s winning goal.
1: CF Daniel Amokachi – Full of power and pace, Nigerian international striker Amokachi troubled Rangers throughout the game as he led the Brugge attack.
2: CM Lorenzo Staelens – Staelens burst forward to level the scores early in the second half with a beautiful goal that capped a performance full of quality from the midfielder.
3: CD Rudi Cossey – Defensive anchor Cossey took on more defensive responsibility in the second half, marking McCoist alone for long spells to allow fellow defenders Borkelmans and Disztl to join the attack further upfield.
RAN: Goram, Brown, Gough, McPherson, Nisbet, Durrant (Hagen), Murray, McCall, Steve, McCoist, Hateley.
BRU: Verlinden, Borkelmans, Cossey, Disztl, Van der Heyden, Ven der Elst, Creve, Verheyen, Staelens, Schaessens (Dziubinski), Amokachi.