There was no stunning Braga-style fightback and no acts of improbable late Europa League heroism. Not this time.
You can never be sure with this Rangers side. For all their toils and troubles in domestic football they get the sniff of blood in Europe and they’re a different animal.
In the first leg of the last 32 against Braga they were two down after 66 minutes and still found a way to preserve the unbeaten home record of Steven Gerrard in Europe.
Bayer Leverkusen opened the scoring, with a penalty from Kai Havertz in the first half
Havertz converts his penalty kick after the ball struck George Edmunson’s hand in the box
Edmunson celebrates after pulling back a goal for Rangers after going 2-0 down to Leverkusen
Rangers: McGregor, Tavernier (Polster 85), Goldson, Edmunson, Barisic, Arfield, Davis, Kamara (Hagi 68), Aribo (Kamberi 53), Morelos, Kent
Subs not used: Ojo, Foderingham, Halliday, Katic
Goals: Edmunson 75
Yellows: Arfield, Kamara, Kent
Bayer Leverkusen: Hradecky, Tah, Dragovic, Tapsoba (Sampaio Filho 68), Weiser, Aranguiz, Demirbay (Baumgartlinger 81), Wendell, Bellarabi (Bailey 62), Havertz, Diaby
Subs not used: Palacios, Ozcan, Stanilewicz, Azhil
Goals: Havertz 37 (pen), Aranguiz 67, Bailey 88
Yellows: Diaby, Wendell, Demirbay, Weiser
With 16 minutes left to play of this last 16 first leg, Ibrox dared to dream. Lightning threatened to strike twice.
They were two goals down again, a first half penalty awarded on the say-so of VAR converted by talented 20-year-old Kai Havertz. When Chilean midfielder Charles Aranguiz doubled Leverkusen’s lead after 67 minutes all looked lost until George Edmondson headed Rangers back into the game.
It proved a false dawn in the end. A sublime strike two minutes from time by Jamaican substitute Leon Bailey was a killer, all but ending hopes of progress to the last eight. Assuming the competition continues in the face of the biggest public health crisis of recent times Rangers also face the likelihood of UEFA punishment after a Buckfast bottle was thrown at the attacker.
Give Rangers their due. They handed out the red, white and blue flags for the fans to wave, switched on the floodlights, turned up the tunes and asked people to make all the noise they could muster.
They also did their bit for public health by failing to lay a glove on their opponents in the first half when Gerrard accused his side of showing their opponents too much respect.
Next Thursday night the second leg in Germany will be played to the surreal backdrop of an empty BayArena in Leverkusen, if it’s played at all. In a fast-moving scenario UEFA can do their worst now. Despite an aggressive, spirited second half fightback the Rangers European adventure looks to be drawing to a close now.
While Europe’s governing body delay the inevitable politicians and governing bodies across Europe have taken firm decisive action. Games have been postponed. Leagues have been mothballed. The same can’t be said of England or Scotland, where the indecision is final.
So it was, then, that 47,494 supporters were asked to roll up in the midst of a pendemic to watch a last 16 tie in a competition facing the imminent likelihood of suspension.
The referee Szymon Marciniak checks the VAR monitor before awarding a penalty
Rangers’ Edmunson reacts after realising he has given away a penalty during the first half
Even if the Europa League staggers on in empty stadia it seems unlikely Rangers will carry on with it after this humbling first leg loss to the team sitting fourth in the German Bundesliga. Make no mistake, Peter Bosz’ were a clear step up from any of the sides faced in a terrific European campaign. Even when George Edmondson’s header gave Rangers hope it was clinically snuffed out.
Glasgow rivals Celtic experienced the slings and arrow of Video Assistant Referees in their last 32 games against Copenhagen. For Rangers Leverkusen’s opening goal was a first – and unhappy – brush with Big Brother.
The goal had been coming. A dangerous incursion down the left flank resulted in a back post strike from Karim Bellarabi being blocked by Borna Barisic. Karem Demirbay shot straight down the throat of Allan McGregor.
Yet Rangers finally seemed to be winning some possession and territory when technology intervened.
With 34 minutes played a Charles Aranguiz cross struck the outstretched left hand of defender George Edmundsen. The Polish referee made the long run to the sideline to check the video monitor; after an interminable wait Szymon Marciniak pointed to the spot. It was the right decision.
Rangers thought they had a penalty of their own, but replays showed the ball didn’t hit a hand
Charles Aranguiz runs away in celebration after scoring his team’s second goal of the match
A rising 20-year-old star of German football, Kai Havertz ignored the boos and the jeers of the Rangers support to send Allan McGregor diving to his left as he sent the ball low down the middle into the net.
For Rangers to make an impact they had to find a way to unsettle opponents who played on the rutted pitch as if they were wearing slippers. They had to get in faces and make like uncomortable and introduction of Florian Kamberi for Joe Aribo after 53 minutes made a difference.
All but invisible in the first half Alfredo Morelos finally burst into the game. A probing Ryan Kent cross towards the back post dropped just beyond the Colombian. Within a minute Morelos forced a fine save from Leverkusen keeper Lukas Hradecky – his first of the game – when James Tavernier burst into space and picked out the striker’s angled run.
Sensing a new energy and purpose in their team the home supporters responded. For the first time in the game they were asking questions, forcing Leverkusen into errors It took a timely Jonathan Tah sliding tackle to deny Morelos a tap-in when Kamberi dispossessed defender Edmond Tapsoba in his own area and rolled the ball across the face of goal.
Substitute Leon Bailey curls a fine finish into the corner to put his team 3-1 ahead of Rangers
Bayer Leverkusen boss Peter Bosz gestures to his side during the first half of the match
There was an escape in 65 minutes when, from a Leverkusen corner kick, Steven Davis managed to head a hooked netbound shot from the excellent Aranguiz off the line. The line didn’t hold long. From the resultant corner sustained Leverkusen pressure saw James Tavernier hook Tah’s probing cross as far as the lurking Aranguiz. There was no mistake this time, the Chilean international midfielder thumping a brilliantly controlled strike low into the net from 18 yards.
Rangers were down and out against Braga when they launched a stunning fightback in the final 20 minutes. It threatened to happen again here.
Ibrox had fallen into a pensive silence when an unmarked George Edmundsen headed a James Tavernier corner in off the inside of the upright for 2-1 in the 74th minute.
Steven Gerrard tries to get his team back into shape after going 1-0 down to Bayer Leverkusen
It proved a short-lived slither of hope. With eleven minutes to play Aranguiz curled a sublime free kick against the face of the crossbar with Allan McGregor beaten. Rangers breathed again, albeit briefly.
The killer blow came with two minutes to play, substitute Leon Bailey curling a superb finish high into the postage stamp corner after a fine darting one-two and pass from Moussa Diaby.
Running to celebrate with the Union Bears was never the smartest idea, the goalscorer lifting an empty bottle thrown in his direction and emptying the final dregs on the Ibrox pitch. For Rangers it might to be too much to rely on UEFA having other matters in mind now.