On a night when too many of Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s players were some way short of their best form, the Rangers manager could feel reasonably content at leaving Portugal with a one-goal deficit in a quarter-final tie which the Scottish champions will feel they can turn around in the second leg at Ibrox next Thursday.
Abel Ruiz gave Braga the advantage, scoring during a period of first-half dominance from which Carlos Carvalhal’s side may yet regret not making more of in the battle for a last four meeting with either RB Leipzig or Atalanta.
Rangers could have no complaints at being behind at the end of a first half which they started brightly enough before finding themselves increasingly second best as Braga grew into the contest.
Ruiz’s goal five minutes before the break was just rewarded for the greater accuracy, pace and dynamism of the hosts’ attacking play with Rangers often left looking exposed and uncomfortable in defense.
Braga hardly seemed impregnable themselves at the back but Rangers were unable to take advantage of the promising situations they created in the early exchanges. A sharper first touch from Ryan Kent might have brought him a fifth minute opener but his stabbed shot was blocked by Braga goalkeeper Matheus before Fashion Sakala’s follow-up effort was diverted wide.
Sakala clearly had the pace to trouble the Braga defense but struggled to find the positioning to allow himself enough opportunity to do so. It was another occasion when it was glaringly apparent just how much Rangers will miss injured striker Alfredo Morelos for the rest of the season.
The warning signs for Rangers began in the 24th minute when Braga captain Ricardo Horta pounced upon a weak attempted clearance from Connor Goldson to smack a shot against Allan McGregor’s left hand post.
The veteran goalkeeper, making his 100th European appearance for the Ibrox club, was beaten two minutes later when Andre Horta’s shot was deflected beyond him off James Tavernier but Rangers were spared on this occasion by a VAR review which saw Italian referee Davide Massa agree that Ryan Jack had been fouled by Al Masrati in the build-up.
As they looked to make the most of that reprieve, Rangers carved out a couple of openings on the break which saw Kent denied by a fine Yan Couto challenge before Sakala wastefully blazed a shot over.
Braga were quickly back on the front foot and duly grabbed their merited lead. Couto, causing all sorts of problems on the right flank, provided the delivery which saw Leon Balogun unable to clear the ball which broke to Ruiz for a superb finish beyond McGregor’s despairing left hand.
Rangers took the sting out of Braga’s play in a more controlled and mature second half display, while the introduction of Kemar Roofe for Sakala just after the hour gave them a better central presence in attack.
Goldson missed their best chance for a leveler, heading wide from a Tavernier corner, as they finished strongly. In seven days’ time, they will have to start that way if they want to stay on the road to Seville in May.
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