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Europa League: Rangers continue to live the dream with semi-final surge

James Tavernier
James Tavernier took his Europa League knockout-stage haul to six goals

As the camera swung across a seething Ibrox, it settled on the Broomloan Stand, where the mass of arms and legs and bodies melted into a huge image of the Europa League surrounded by red, white and blue. ‘Make us dream’, read the banner below.

And how Rangers’ grand European dreams are being stoked right now. Ibrox takes on a gladiatorial feel on these nights. Rangers become a hungrier, snarling outfit.

Giovanni van Bronckhort’s men are in the semi-finals. Two matches away from Seville, three from immortality.

  • Rangers reach semis with extra-time win over Braga
  • Relive famous European night at Ibrox
  • The Rangers hero unheralded in his homeland

Trailing 1-0 from the first leg against Braga, Rangers got the dream start they craved. Ninety seconds in, the place went berserk. Borna Barisic, one of Rangers’ rampaging full-backs, crossed for the other, James Tavernier, to net.

Kemar Roofe had a goal disallowed soon after, smacked the bar, and was cut down in the box to earn a penalty, a red card for Tormena de Farias and a second goal for Tavernier.

Joe Aribo spurned a fabulous chance for a third. Aaron Ramsey hit the side netting; Connor Goldson rattled a post. Roofe had another – this time, a beautiful chip – ruled out. So too did Ramsey.

It was 2-0 but it could have been six, a complete evisceration by a team with most of their eggs now nestled in the Europa League basket. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t.

Corner Braga. Towering header. Goal David Carmo. Extra time. Joy and brio giving way to angst and niggle.

Rangers had to dig deep and then dig deeper again. Roofe, shouldering the line-leading burden, provided the killer touch. More cards. Picanco Medeiros dismissed for ranting at the referee. More chances. Scott Arfield, off the bench late on, spurning two irresistible sitters against the nine men.

Another night of European bonkerdom. The prize, a semi-final date with RB Leipzig, a formidable opponent but not a fear-inducing one.

“Dreaming is good because it gives you desire, the push to go on,” said Rangers manager Van Bronckhorst.

“I am just happy we are through, it is a big achievement to be in the last four of Europe and I am really proud of my team.

“We are going to enjoy this night and work hard for the coming games to give this club success. We will do everything possible.”

Full-bore full-backs

“What a ball from ‘Borna-again Barisic!” cooed former Rangers striker Rory Loy, as the Croat bent in a sumptuous curler from the left.

This has been a bruising campaign for Barisic, whose form fell off a cliff after a blistering 2020-21, who was injured on international duty, vilified for a meek display in the Celtic Park thrashing two months back, and who lost his place in the team to Calvin Bassey.

“He’s probably even better at crossing than Tavernier when he’s on his game,” said Richard Foster, the former Rangers full-back.

In a thunderous opening half, Rangers ripped 13 crosses into the Braga box, their rampaging wide men laying waste with the speed and precision of their deliveries.

Borna Barisic and James Tavernier average positions
Borna Barisic and James Tavernier’s average positions during a dominant first-half performance on the flanks

Barisic, via Joe Aribo’s flick, found Tavernier at the back post for the opener. Another delicious cross served a second goal on a silver platter to Roofe, only for VAR to intervene for a brush of Barisic’s hand against the bouncing ball in the lead-up.

Barisic might have had three first-half assists, Roofe clattering the bar when Aribo again steered the left-back’s cross towards the far post.

On the opposite flank, Tavernier whizzed up and down, constantly lurking when Barisic prepared for bombardment.

His nerve did not fray from 12 yards with Ibrox expectant and perhaps the weight of Rangers’ season on his shoulders. That’s six knockout-stage goals for the club’s monumental captain, who is now the tournament’s joint top scorer this season.

Raising the Roofe

Roofe does not possess the visceral, muscular attributes of Alfredo Morelos, stricken by a thigh injury and out for the season.

Bereft of his goalscoring colossus, Van Bronckhorst cannot play so directly through the middle. Instead, with Barisic and Tavernier wreaking mayhem, Rangers went wide early and often, loaded up the box, and played to the predatory strengths of Roofe.

The striker’s movement is terrific. He sought out pockets of prime real estate in the Braga box with jinking, dynamic darts. He galloped in behind, cleaving Braga’s backline open.

More than once, he applied the finishing touch too, only to be denied by VAR and the woodwork. But when his moment arrived, Roofe delivered, breaking late towards the six-yard box and side-footing beyond Matheus to send Rangers through.

“He’s a better goalscorer than Morelos,” said Foster. “When he gets the service, he can be clinical.”

Does more German joy beckon?

Leipzig are a serious proposition. They are unbeaten in 13 matches – their last defeat a 3-2 loss to Bayern Munich in early February – and made light work of Atalanta in their second leg in Italy, winning 2-0 to seal a 3-1 success.

Fourth in the Bundesliga, a point behind Bayer Leverkusen, they are nine adrift of Borussia Dortmund, who Rangers dispatched in the last 32.

“Rangers shown they can grind out results in this tournament,” added Loy. “They’ve shown they can turn up on big nights against big teams. Who would bet against them in the semi-finals?”

Leipzig, West Ham, Eintracht Frankfurt – none of those left in the hunt will scare Rangers.

“It starts with belief, to believe we can go through and be in the last four,” Van Bronckhorst said.

“We are happy we could give the fans a game they were proud of and to proceed in Europe is huge.”

These are heady days for a Scottish side. The last time Rangers reached a European semi was on their run to the Uefa Cup final in 2008. Before that, you’re talking the Cup Winners’ Cup triumph in 1972. Then it’s the Fairs Cup of 1969.

What an opportunity lies before them now. The dream, wild and exhilarating, goes on apace.

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