Whether Rangers make a long-awaited return to the Champions League or end up in the familiar surroundings of the Europa League is still at stake.
Against PSV Eindhoven they capitalized on their chance, a goalkeeper disaster from Walter Benítez granting them their second goal, although they also showed much of the spirit that led them to the Europa League final last season.
PSV showed many of the same qualities in an even contest throughout which the momentum fluctuated. In addition to defensive errors, both teams showed attacking quality, and like this game, next week in Eindhoven will likely be a tough test of nerves.
Rangers’ absence from the Champions League group stage spans 12 years, when the club were managed by the late Walter Smith and Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United were among their opponents. Ferguson was now seated in the Ibrox stands. Steven Davis, who started in midfield, and Allan McGregor, the veteran goalkeeper on the bench, featured at the time. Via stints in English football as the club reformed and moved up the divisions, the duo were symbols of Rangers’ bid to return to the promised land.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s great friend and former Dutch international colleague Ruud van Nistelrooy stood in the way. The former supreme striker was in his sixth game as a senior manager, unbeaten so far, and returning to the pitch where he netted PSV’s consolation penalty in a famous 4-1 win for Rangers in this competition in 1999.
Van Bronckhorst’s reluctance to pair new signing Antonio Colak with Alfredo Morelos continued, with the Croatia international favoring the Colombian striker for fitness reasons. It was Luuk de Jong, the veteran PSV striker, who had the first chance, missing his finish on a perilous pass from Ismael Saibari. The visitors had started with neat possession football, using a surface made quicker by the Glasgow summer rain.
Davis’ influence began to grow midway through the first half. It was on his pass that Malik Tillman fired the first Rangers shot. Ryan Kent also came to the fore, with Tillman and Colak locating each other’s wavelength. A VAR penalty was issued against Rangers when the ball appeared to hit the hand of PSV defender Jordan Teze.
PSV have always maintained their threat on the counter, with dangerous man Cody Gakpo the outside ball on the left, preventing James Tavernier from advancing his trademark, although it was from a free kick that PSV’s goal in the 38th minute came. Connor Goldson failed to clear a corner then blocked the line of sight of his keeper, Jon McLaughlin, as Ibrahim Sangaré scuffed in a shot.
The Rangers reaction was quick and incisive. They were back level within three minutes, Davis dismissing Tavernier on the overlap and Colak justifying his selection with an expertly guided finish for his fourth goal in four matches.
The break has meant no slackening in attacking intentions for either side, with both attempting to take control of the tie ahead of next Wednesday’s second leg, although Rangers’ approach has become more direct out of necessity. PSV dominated possession but still looked vulnerable at the back whenever Rangers got stronger.
In another outburst from Tavernier, Colak forced Benítez’s first second-half save, before De Jong’s flick sent Saibari past Goldson but the Moroccan fired wide. Saibari then forced a save from McLaughlin as PSV began to assert themselves more.
And yet, it was the Rangers who struck. Saibari’s foul on Tillman gave Tom Lawrence a free-kick chance. His 30-yard effort bounced and skidded across the box but was still more than salvageable for Benítez, who knocked the ball down and allowed it to bounce off the line to delight the home fans and the disbelief of the Dutch contingent.
The spirit of PSV remained admirably intact, and from another whipped corner, an ill-marked Armando Obispo headed a deserved equalizer on the balance of play. To end their exile, Rangers will have to revive the key from last season.