Rangers recover from an early setback to earn a creditable away draw in the first leg of their Europa League last-16 tie against Slavia Prague.
Just four days after being crowned Scottish Premiership champions, Steven Gerrard’s side travelled to face Leicester City’s conquerors.
They trailed after just six minutes when Nicolae Stanciu thumped in a stunning opener.
But Filip Helander tapped home a vital away goal to level before half-time.
The strike – which came against the run of play – could prove crucial in the tie, with the Czech champions travelling to Ibrox next Thursday.
Goalkeeper Allan McGregor ensured the score remained level with an outrageous diving save in the final minute after a thundering header.
Rangers have been riding the crest of a wave this season and remain unbeaten in Europe, but the question in Prague was how jaded they might feel after Sunday’s coronation sparked wild celebrations.
They were well off the pace in the first half, as Slavia pressed ferociously to repeatedly force their visitors into uncharacteristic mistakes, which yielded field position.
But, Stanciu’s rocket from the left-hand corner of the box aside, the hosts created few clear chances, and when Helander tapped home after a deft touch across goal from Ianis Hagi, Rangers found themselves in a strong position.
Gerrard’s men improved after the break, though were still short of their best as decision making in the final third let them down.
Ryan Kent scuffed a shot into the ground and almost the top corner but Ondrej Kolar did brilliantly to save, while Connor Goldson blinked at the crucial moment as Borna Barisic’s free-kick whistled just past him with the goal gaping.
Slavia also had their moments, but overplayed in the final third and continually put too much on the crucial last cross or pass. They became increasingly ragged and with more composure in possession Rangers might have exploited the gaps left at the back.
However, Gerrard’s side will back themselves to finish the job in Glasgow next week given their imperious home record, and at the death they were once again grateful to McGregor for his heroics as he showed tremendous wrist strength and agility to claw the ball off the line after a towering header from Lukas Masopust.
Man of the match – Allan McGregor
What did we learn?
Turns out a title party is not ideal preparation for a European knockout game. Rangers’ players and staff quite rightly celebrated their triumph on Sunday, and it showed for the first hour in Prague.
However, their continued resilience kept them in the game when they were overwhelmed and they slowly clawed their way back. And, when you have a shot-stopper of the quality of McGregor, you have a chance. It was a genuinely staggering save, but nobody can be surprised that the former Scotland goalkeeper keeps producing big moments, even as he nears 40.
He is out contract at the end of the season, but will surely sign a new deal when the dust settles on this campaign.
Rangers missed their captain James Tavernier, who provides so much in terms of their build-up and final-third play, and at times 19-year-old Nathan Patterson was exposed by Abdallah Sima, though he did make a crucial tackle late on and improved as the game aged.
Regardless of whether Tavernier returns from injury next week, Rangers will back themselves to finish the job.
What about the coefficient?
Scotland still sit 11th in Uefa’s rankings, a spot that would likely earn a direct place in the 2022-23 Champions League group stage for next season’s Premiership winners.
However, Ukraine are right behind Scotland in a tight race for that coveted position and have two teams still standing in the Europa League.
Dinamo Kiev were beaten 2-0 by Villarreal in their first leg which helps Scotland’s cause while Shakhtar Donetsk are up against Roma (20:00 GMT).
Rangers have a week off league action, so they will be fresh and raring to go for the return leg at Ibrox next Thursday (20:00 GMT).
- 6ZimaBooked at 56mins
- 7StanciuSubstituted forLingrat 76’minutes
- 9Oladeji OlayinkaSubstituted forMasopustat 45’minutes
- 16KuchtaSubstituted forDorleyat 71’minutes
- 31BarisicBooked at 29mins
- 18KamaraSubstituted forZunguat 88’minutes
- 10DavisBooked at 54mins
- 17AriboSubstituted forRoofeat 81’minutes
- 7HagiSubstituted forArfieldat 63’minutes
- Ovidiu Hategan
Match ends, Slavia Prague 1, Rangers 1.