Whether Rangers make a long-awaited return to the Champions League, or drop into the familiar surroundings of the Europa League, still hangs in the balance.
Against PSV, Rangers rode their luck, a goalkeeping disaster by Walter Benítez from Tom Lawrence’s free-kick gifting them their second goal, although there were flashes of the chaotic momentum that carried them to last season’s Europa League final. Next Wednesday in Eindhoven will be a familiar test of nerves.
PSV, just as dangerous on the attack and vulnerable in defense as Rangers – though more comfortable in possession – deservedly share the spoils of an even contest. Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s great friend and former Dutch international colleague, Ruud van Nistelrooy was in his sixth match as PSV coach and the former striker supreme retained his unbeaten record, although admitting some relief.
“In the first half, Rangers were the better team,” he said. “Their fans were behind them and we had to go through a difficult time.” Van Bronckhorst returned the compliment, saying: “PSV is an excellent team, they showed that today.”
Rangers’ absence from the Champions League group stage stretches back 12 years, when the club was managed by the late, great Walter Smith. His close friend Sir Alex Ferguson, whose Manchester United team faced Rangers that season, was watching from the Ibrox stands. As Rangers attempted to return to the promised land, another remnant from that time, Steven Davis, now 37, marshalled the midfield.
Van Bronckhorst’s reluctance to pair new signing Antonio Colak with Alfredo Morelos continued, a decision vindicated by the Croatia forward’s excellent finish for Rangers’ equalizer. “There’s a big hope for the second game,” said Colak, who ran himself into the ground while working the channels. “We know what we can do. We have a big chance to go into the group stage.”
The Rangers manager praised Colak’s work rate without the ball, pointedly saying he had never considered bringing Morelos on. “He scored a great goal,” said Van Bronckhorst. “He gave the energy the team needed.”
On a surface given zip by Glaswegian summer rain, it was Luuk de Jong, PSV’s veteran striker, who had the first chance, making a mess of his finish from Ismael Saibari’s pearler of a pass. But Rangers soon took up their cudgels. Davis’s pass set up Malik Tillman to go close, and a VAR penalty call was denied when the ball seemed to have hit PSV defender Jordan Teze’s hand.
PSV retained their threat on the counter, danger man Cody Gakpo their out-ball on the left keeping James Tavernier from making his trademark runs forward, although it was from a set piece that the Dutch club’s 38th-minute goal came. Connor Goldson failed to clear a corner, then blocked the sightline of his goalkeeper, Jon McLaughlin, as Ibrahim Sangaré’s scuffed shot bobbled in.
Rangers’ reaction was incisive; they were back level within three minutes. Davis sent Tavernier away on the overlap and Colak’s was a guided finish, “one-touch” in his own words, a fourth goal in four matches.
After the break, Rangers’ approach became more direct through necessity as a rejigged PSV dominated possession. “The second half, we really started to play and press and get the ball and play,” said Van Nistelrooy.
Yet it was Rangers who struck next, Saibari’s foul on Tillman giving Lawrence a free-kick chance. His effort bounced and skidded off the surface but was more than saveable for Benítez, who spilled the ball and allowed it to bounce over the line to glee from the home fans. “An unfortunate moment for our goalkeeper,” said Van Nistlelrooy. “He’s disappointed with that mistake but it’s no problem as it happens.”
PSV’s own determination remained admirably undimmed. From another corner, a poorly marked Armando Obispo climbed high to powerfully head their equalizer. To end their Champions League exile, Rangers will have to defend set pieces far better than that, while channeling the spirit of last season’s adventure.