When Christopher Nkunku stole away from John Lundstram and went round Allan McGregor with 20 minutes left in Leipzig, the Rangers fans might have been minded to close their eyes ahead of the inevitable.
Of all the guys the home team would have wanted that chance to fall to, Nkunku was their man. Thirty goals in 46 games. A lethal force in Leipzig’s season. At last the moment had come when Rangers’ incredible powers of concentration at the back had come undone and now they were going to pay.
Nkunku skied it. The psychology looked important at the time. Nkunku had been a frustrated figure all night, a player who found little space for all the suffocating pressure the Rangers defenders were inflicting on him.
In moments like that you might have been inclined to think something special was happening here. When one of the most consistent goalscorers in German and European football misses from point-blank range you’d be forgiven for concluding that the footballing Gods are trying to send a message.
Just as Gods giveth, the Gods taketh away. With five minutes left it felt like Rangers were getting out of town with a goalless draw that would have been greeted as rapturously by their fans as the set of 0-0s against Fiorentina in 2008, the last time the club made it this far in a European competition.
The winner was completely deserved but it was a sickener for Rangers. They came to Leipzig on a stifling mission and they almost pulled it off.
‘Rangers’ defensive zeal drive Leipzig scatty’
Fourteen years ago they made a European final on the back of defensive resilience and tactical nous, all masterminded by Walter Smith. The great man is sadly no longer with us but for much of the night in Leipzig the spirit of 2008 reigned. For Carlos Cuellar, David Weir and Sasa Papac read Calvin Bassey, Connor Goldson and John Lundstram. They were terrific.
Rangers hustled and harried Leipzig, refusing to bend, riding their luck but defending with a zeal that drove Leipzig scatty at times. They got beaten by a piece of class, which is what you might expect from a player, Angelino, who cost more than Rangers’ entire starting line-up.
Domenico Tedesco, the Leipzig head coach, said that Angelino would convert that chance probably only twice in every 10 attempts. If there was pain involved in losing so late in the day there might be some solace for Rangers in the fact it took an absolute pearler to bring them down. The stout defending they showed for the vast majority of the night might serve them well when this tie reaches it conclusion at Ibrox on Thursday.
The underdogs are up against it, as we knew they would be, but a one-goal deficit is no disaster for Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side. They’ll need more of the ball at Ibrox, they’ll need more accuracy and intent and goal threat. Tedesco thinks that when Rangers come out to play his team will be ready to pick them off. That was never happening in Leipzig. Caution was the watchword for the visitors on Thursday, as it had to be.
The challenge facing Van Bronckhorst is finding a solution up front. Asking Scott Wright or Joe Aribo or Fashion Sakala to do the role of the man through the middle might be fine in Scottish football, but this is the rarefied air of a European semi-final and hoping that a patch-up operation will cut it is pushing it. All at Ibrox will be saying prayers for the injured Kemar Roofe. They desperately need a Lazarus job in the coming week.
This was their 17th game in Europe this season. An 18th will come on Thursday night. For a team that won only one of their first six in European competition this season this is extraordinary stuff. They have a huge amount of work to do, but they’re still there, still fighting with everything they’ve got.
Leipzig looked a relieved team at the end. This was not a pleasant evening for them. The Germans had much of the ball but little composure. They bossed possession but it came with the complication of two and three blue jerseys swarming around them.
‘Plenty more drama to come at Ibrox’
It wasn’t pretty, but Rangers won’t have cared about that. The joy for them would have come in the body language of some of the Leipzig players when Bassey blocked an effort from Nkunku, when Goldson blocked one from Konrad Laimer, when James Tavernier blocked one from Angelino. Leipzig were muscled out of their rhythm.
Towards the end of the opening half, Nkunku drifted out to the left to get himself involved in the play. When the ball reached him he was immediately double-teamed by Goldson and Tavernier and ransacked of possession. He turned away in angst. ‘When are these guys gonna give me a break?’.
Leipzig were better in the second half. Rangers came out and played a bit, too. Kent flashed a ball across goal, an inviting delivery with no takers. You thought of Morelos and Roofe, two strikers who live for crosses like that, who might well have anticipated what was coming and got themselves in a position to convert.
It was a reminder of what Rangers are missing and what they must find, somehow, before Thursday. If Rangers can overcome Leipzig without a recognised striker then mark it down as truly extraordinary.
The home crowd was beginning to turn antsy when Leipzig scored. They’d gasped at Nkunku’s miss, held their head in their hands anew when he missed again with a back-post header and may have started to give up the ghost entirely when McGregor beat Tyler Adams’ shot away soon after. Five minutes left on the clock. A home support almost resigned to their fate. A visiting force poised to acclaim their most glorious 0-0 in 14 years. Then, the twist in the tale.
Now it’s Rangers’ turn, though. Now it’s Ibrox’s time. Now it’s the roars of the 50,000 in Glasgow that might have an influence. In their wildest dreams at the beginning of the season they wouldn’t have imagined this scenario – a one-goal deficit going into a home game against a £200m squad to decide who makes it to a European final. It’s crazy.
The dream is still there for Rangers. It’s going to be brutally tough, but the scale of the challenge is only going to lend enormous power to Thursday night. Writing them off in their own place is not a sensible play. There’s drama to come. Nothing surer.