Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Europa League: Rangers propelled by delirious Ibrox on unforgettable European night

GLASGOW — As Ibrox threatened to bounce its way into the stratosphere it was hard not to wonder what had become of those dozens of people who had marauded the streets of Glasgow in the hours before kick off, desperately seeking a spare ticket for what they knew would be the game of a generation. Had someone’s mate cancelled at the 11th hour? Did anyone have other more tempting plans? Might a young (well, arguably) reporter on his first visit to the ground be tempted to cash in his accreditation for a decent wedge of cash?

Not a chance, there was no sum that could have felt like fair recompense for robbing yourself of this most magnificent of nights. For the first time since 2008 Rangers are into a European final, 3-1 victors on the night over an RB Leipzig side that came into this tie (and even tonight’s second leg after Angelino’s winner in Germany) as heavy underdogs. Still Rangers had an edge in this tie even more powerful than Christopher Nkunku. The spirit and support of Ibrox took Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s more than capable players and propelled them to ever greater heights. They were simply irresistible, the virtuous circle of a bond beyond players and supporters overwhelming Leipzig on a night of glorious emotion.

There could have been no fitting tribute to Jimmy Bell, Rangers’ kit man of 30 years who passed away earlier this week. The gates at Ibrox were decorated with uncountable scarves, flowers and shirts. A three-minute video tribute ahead of kick off was met with unceasing applause from the packed ground. From then onward, a wall of noise. “The deeds of those who were before us are our inspiration” read the banner in the Broomloan Road Stand, the match poster from the 1972 Cup Winners’ Cup final straddling thousands of supporters. What chance that in another 50 years time it will be to Seville and the Europa League that memories turn? On the basis of tonight’s performance it would be a bold man that counted them out against Eintracht Frankfurt in the May 18 final.

Leipzig know what it is to play in hostile environments; not for nothing are this product of an energy drink conglomerate vilified across German football. That did not stop them from being thoroughly spooked by the eardrum-busting noise of Ibrox. The roar of the home supporters was an almost tangible force, pushing the visitors away from Allan McGregor’s goal, sucking it toward the net.

On the rare occasions when Leipzig could quell the crowd their quality told. The pressure their front three imparted on the Rangers defense was enough to pin them back in their own third of the pitch, desperate long balls up to Joe Aribo soon returned to Konrad Laimer. There was no one on hand to stop him driving through midfield, teeing up Youssuf Poulsen only for the Dane’s low drive to be blocked by Ryan Jack’s intervention.

The early stand off could not last but few at Ibrox could have seen it broken to the home team’s advantage. Rangers finally broke the press, darting down the left with Ryan Kent. The home support give him a chant once bequeathed to Ryan Giggs — ‘Kent Will Tear You Apart’ to the tune of the Joy Division classic — with good reason. There was no stopping him getting to the byline, from where he hung one to the back post for James Tavernier to put in. 

Suddenly Ibrox became Scotland’s largest bouncy castle, more than 45,000 jubilant Glaswegians shaking the stands of this grand old ground. On the pitch Leipzig were wobbling, simple passes Domenico Tedesco’s players can usually execute with their eyes closed now bound for the irresistible force of Rangers.

If the opener had been a blue bolt the second, Glen Kamara stroking the ball into the bottom corner off his weaker left foot, felt like the inevitable next step in a game that had swung emphatically in Rangers’ direction. They might have killed the game off before the break, Joe Aribo’s wild boot failing to turn home Tavernier’s cross.

Leipzig returned for the second half acutely aware they had been let off the hook. It took time for them to get going but slowly their quality began to tell; naturally it would be too much for Connor Goldson and company to quell players of Leipzig’s devastating for 90 minutes. Just after Allan McGregor’s fine save from Laimer, Angelino delivered a devastating cross into Nkunku’s path, whipping his left foot around the ball he crashed a strike into the net.

For the first time the mood changed from jubilation to doubt. Where were the substitutes, the home fans cried. Van Bronckhorst trusted his charges and was rewarded with a spell of composure and quality, five minutes of keep ball that took the wind out of Leipzig sails. Rangers were back in the ascendancy. Kent was in charge again. To the byeline he drove, Peter Gulacsi flapping at a cross he could have cleared from safety. Josko Gvardiol hacked the ball off the line but only as far as John Lundstram. With a thump he brought Ibrox to raptures.

Leipzig knew the jig was up. To quell this crowd once had taken it all out of them, they could not do it again. Twenty minutes after the final whistle the drums were still thudding, setting the marching beat to Seville. 

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