Rangers haven't wasted any time conducting their business in the transfer window. Nikola Katic and…
Kyle Lafferty didn’t have his best game for Rangers on Thursday night when he was drafted in to replace the suspended Alfredo Morelos against Villarreal. The lanky, Northern Irish forward spent much of the game chasing down shadows, trying to get on to the end of hopeless long balls or mistimed crosses.
But then, in the 76th minute, the forward got onto the end of a Borna Barisic cross and casually tapped the ball into the back of the net. All the huffing and puffing had finally paid off and with a moment of composure, Lafferty had put Villarreal to the sword.
The backup goalscorer’s goal was the second of the evening for Rangers but in many ways, his performance – unpolished and lacklustre but ultimately clinical – was one that perfectly encapsulated the manner in which Steven Gerrard’s side somehow managed to wrestle a draw out of a game that very few thought they had a chance of winning.
After a stunning lob from Carlos Bacca just a few moments into the game and a 20-minute blitz from the home side, it seemed as though Rangers’ return to European football was going to be a blunt, painful and ultimately brief one. Yet, while Villarreal passed the ball with speed and precision, they never pulled away from the Scottish side and ultimately failed to truly build on a spectacular, individual goal. Which, when you think about it, is rather surprising considering just how out of sync Gerrard’s team seemed on the night.
Let’s start in midfield. Andy Halliday looked determined, but Scott Arfield (even though he scored) and Lassana Coulibaly struggled to keep up with their opposing numbers and for 90 minutes this Rangers’ side that had spent all summer working on eliminating space between midfield and defence looked porous and at times completely wide open. Ryan Jack was undoubtedly sorely missed.
Similarly, Ryan Kent and Daniel Candeias looked at odds with the task of taking on Villarreal’s full-backs and although the latter managed to wrap his foot around the ball for the opening goal, Rangers’ direct, attacking moves were mostly due to the late arrival of Glenn Middleton for the final 20 minutes of the match.
Indeed, even when tasked with simply providing respite for the Rangers’ defence with a simple out ball, Kent, in particular, struggled to pick the right time to take on an opposing defender and risk losing the ball or when to simply hold on to it and find an easy pass. Here, Gerrard would have surely preferred the calmer head of Jamie Murphy on either wing on the night.
In contrast, a late injury to Nikola Katic meant that Joe Worrall was rushed into the side for a notable baptism of fire and despite very little help from his midfield, the Nottingham Forest prospect did remarkably well alongside the calming influence of Connor Goldson.
If this all reads as though I’m having a go at Rangers’ performance on Thursday that’s largely because I am. This wasn’t a game in which Gerrard’s tactics were finally fulfilled and the Ibrox machine was running full steam ahead. It was a match in which Rangers looked dreadfully error-prone and at times completely lost against Villarreal’s tempo and imagination with the ball.
Earlier in the week, we considered whether a disciplined, well-drilled Rangers team could take advantage of an out-of-form Villareal, yet what actually happened was that Gerrard’s team didn’t really do anything he undoubtedly told them before the game and yet they still came away with a result.
Yet none of that matters. With a squad riddled with injuries, Rangers picked up a massive point in what many predicted would be their trickiest away game of the group. Clinging, desperately to a 2-2 draw after playing out of your skin is one thing, but for Gerrard’s side to pick up a point despite so many things going wrong suggest that there’s still a lot more to come from this side. And that alone will surely galvanise them to go on and put their Spanish foe to the sword when they welcome them back to Govan.
This will surely be a game that Gerrard and his backroom staff will have little or no intention of revisiting any time soon to pick over mishaps in the system or positional mistakes, but paradoxically it may prove to be his squad’s most significant result to date. Rangers probably did as well as they could have done on Thursday night, without playing well at all.