Goals at either end of the first half from James Tavernier had looked to have sent Rangers into the last four of a major European competition for the seventh time. They got there in the end but it required an extra-time goal from the industrious Kemar Roofe to confirm a trip to Germany in two weeks.
This proved every bit as fraught as many had anticipated. The huge cheer at the end of extra-time was shot through with sheer utter bloody relief. Somehow Rangers will have to compose themselves in time to play a Scottish Cup semi-final against Celtic as soon as Sunday.
Ibrox supporters will need longer to recover from this needlessly anxious night against opponents who ended up playing with two men short. The Ibrox side did what they tend to do and lulled their fans into a false sense of security.
They scored three times in the opening 45 minutes though only two goals stood. They should have been enough to secure what Rangers wanted against the then ten men of Braga. Somehow, from somewhere, the depleted Portuguese visitors conjured a goal from their first corner of the game to level the tie with seven minutes of normal time left.
David Carmo beat Roofe on the edge of the six-yard box to flick in a header that plunged Ibrox into shocked silence. It raised the specter of the disastrous second-half display against Malmo in a Champions League qualifier earlier this season. The identity of the manager might have changed since then, but this maddening tendency to flirt with danger when in a seemingly impregnable position continues. It was no surprise to see Giovanni van Bronckhorst crouch down on the sidelines with his head in his hands. His game plan had been progressing so well until then.
Who needs Alfredo Morelos when you have James Tavernier? The full-back continued his phenomenal goalscoring record with the opening two goals. The first was steered home at the far post after just 74 seconds. The second involved the familiar sight of the skipper placing the ball on the penalty spot.
Tavernier drove his effort down the middle to put Rangers ahead in the tie for the first time just two minutes before the interval. It would have been a hammer blow for the visitors even without the further serious hindrance of having to play the second half with ten men after Vitor Tormena was red carded for taking down Roofe inside the box.
Even so, there was ample reason for caution on Rangers’ part. As recently as this season, when still under Steven Gerrard’s charge, they had stumbled despite having a one-man advantage after Malmo scored two second half goals at Ibrox to eliminate Rangers from the Champions League.
This traumatic episode had begun to be viewed as a blessing in disguise. With the best will in the world, there’s little chance that the Ibrox side would have made it to the semi-final stage of European football’s blue riband competition.
The Europa League involves not quite such a stellar company although Rangers may be relieved to hear Barcelona aren’t potential opponents in the final in Seville after the Spanish side crashed out against Eintracht Frankfurt. There is, though, the side currently sitting fourth in the Bundesliga to worry about first. From the evidence of this performance, even given the late second-half lapse, few should rule out another Scottish odyssey to Seville for a European final.
It had promised to be a long, tense night. And so it proved. The referee’s whistle sounded for the last time at the deadline-shredding time of 10.34pm.
Rangers had much earlier looked to be making quick work of the opposition having leveled the tie by the second minute. Tavernier ghosted in at the far post to score from a tight angle after good work from Borna Barisic and Ryan Kent down the left. The former’s cross was flicked on by Aribo, and Tavernier finished like the accomplished goalscorer he has become.
The game kicked off at 8pm following a tifo display that urged Rangers to “make us dream”. By 8.05 the hosts were persuading the supporters to do just that. But as so often happens, the realization that this had been a cruel tease began to form in the dying minutes. Braga scored to level the tie after 83 minutes. Dazed and suddenly riddled with nerves, Rangers seemed capable of granting again before extra-time.
A whirlwind start saw the hosts score twice in just over three minutes. Rangers already seemed to have one foot in the semi-finals though it was removed following a VAR review. There was some initial confusion.
Many supporters wrongly interpreted referee Francois Letexier’s hand signals as providing confirmation the goal had stood. A huge cheer erupted. Flight times to Leipzig were being checked.
Then the realization dawned that the goal had been chopped off for the ball having glanced off Barisic’s hand before the left-back’s pinpoint accurate cross for Roofe to power in a header. It seemed harsh in the extreme – harsher, even, than Chelsea full-back Marcos Alonso’s potentially tie-sealing drive into the corner against Real Madrid two nights earlier. His superb strike from him chalked off after the referee was instructed to review the action and saw that the ball had ricocheted off the Spaniard’s hand. On this basis, the Rangers goal was always likely to be ruled out once Letexier had been notified of the possible infringement.
Many feared it might provide a significant decision. Such worries intensified as Rangers wasted a number of excellent opportunities to score a goal that would be considered valid by the fussy French referee.
Rangers had only themselves to blame for not doing so. Somehow Roofe managed to strike the bar just after the half hour mark after Joe Aribo had helped on a Tavernier corner. Some desperate and sometimes brilliant defending from Braga kept Rangers at bay. Roofe then had another sight of goal but dragged a wide shot of the far post. The centre-forward, fresh from a hat-trick against St Mirren on Sunday, was providing an awkward customer. He offered something different to the wiles of Morelos, who was present at Ibrox on crutches.
Still, when Calvin Bassey’s long ball out of defense put Roofe through on goal, it was probably not necessary for Tormena to take such drastic action as nudge the striker over having found himself the wrong side of his opponent. The referee had little option but to award a penalty.
Whether Roofe would have scored is a moot point – he did finish a similar chance with aplomb before being flagged for offside in the second half. Nevertheless, the referee flashed a red card in Tormena’s face.
The defender took his time to depart but Tavernier was not to be deflected from his purpose despite the delay, and the fact he’d missed his last penalty against Dundee last month. He swept home his 13th goal of the season. Ibrox was in ferment. It remained so for much of the second half until Carmo’s mood-altering intervention ensured extra-time.
Rangers regrouped, however. Roofe again came to the fore and scored on 101 minutes after Tavernier and substitute Glen Kamara combined on the right. The striker slid in Rangers’ third goal and what proved to be the final say. Braga imploded shortly afterwards with a second red card for second-half substitute Luri Medeiros after a late challenge on Tavernier was compounded by dissent.
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