Alfredo Morelos breaks Ally McCoist's European scoring record but Rangers let famous win in Lisbon slip from their grasp
On a night when Rangers would certainly have settled for a share of the spoils before kick-off, they were left with a sense of deflation in taking just one point from Benfica in a tumultuous 3-3 draw at the Stadium of Light.
Steven Gerrard’s team were firmly on course to extend their 100 percent record in Group D of the Europa League when they led 3-1 with just 13 minutes remaining. Having gone behind to Connor Goldson’s second minute own goal, Rangers hit back impessively after Benfica were reduced to 10 men after 19 minutes when Nicolas Otamendi was sent off.
They levelled through a Diogo Goncalves own goal and looked set to inflict a first ever home defeat in this tournament on the Portuguese giants as Glen Kamara put them ahead before Alfredo Morelos added their third – a landmark moment for the Colombian striker with his 22nd European goal for Rangers, beating the previous all-time club record set by Ally McCoist.
Rangers missed further chances to stretch their lead but even after Rafa Silva pulled one back for Benfica in the 77th minute, they should have seen out a victory. But in stoppage time they were caught out as substitute Darwin Nunez salvaged a dramatic equaliser for the Group D top seeds.
Horses for courses
Given the previous trend of regularly freshening up his starting 11 with five or six changes as they meet the demands made by the Thursday-Sunday-Thursday schedule for their European and domestic commitments, it was perhaps surprising that Gerrard made just two alterations this time around.
Scott Arfield and Cedric Itten dropped out of the side which had kicked off the 1-0 Premiership win at Kilmarnock on Sunday, while Steven Davis and Kamara returned.
It signalled a more robust and defensively-minded midfield trio for Rangers with Davis and Kamara slotting in alongside Ryan Jack in that department.
It also saw Joe Aribo pushed into a more advanced role, looking to bring creativity and penetration in partnership with Morelos and Ryan Kent.
A nightmare start
Defensive calamity is not a phrase which Rangers have been familiar with in a season which has seen them keep 15 clean sheets already. But Benfica’s opening goal with just over 60 seconds on the clock most certainly came into that category.
It was a shocker from Filip Helander’s perspective. The Swedish international is normally a safety-first, no-nonsense central defender – in contrast to the superior ball-playing skills of Leon Balogun with whom he has been trading places as the partner for ever-present Goldson at the heart of Gerrard’s back four.
But Helander was caught cold on this occasion. He was uncertain and fatally hesitant as he failed to execute what should have been a straightforward clearance inside his own box. Silva seized upon the error and his low cutback from the right was unwittingly diverted beyond Allan McGregor by the unfortunate Goldson.
It was a rocky start all round from Rangers who were fortunate that Benfica failed to double their lead in the 10th minute when their captain Pizzi dragged a shot wide after the visitors had been far too easily caught out on the counter-attack from their own corner kick.
Turned on its head
It was looking ominous for Rangers at this stage but the momentum swung in their favour dramatically with Otamendi’s dismissal in the 19th minute. A clever through ball from inside his own half by Steven Davis caught the veteran Argentinian international defender flat-footed as he tried to prevent Kent racing onto it through the middle.
The slightest of touches was enough to knock the rapid Kent off balance and provide Spanish referee Jesus Manzano with a simple decision to make as he flourished the red card at Otamendi. Jesus responded by withdrawing Pizzi, one of his most creative influences, and sending on Jardel to join Jan Vertonghen in central defence.
But the hosts barely had time to settle into their reshaped and short-handed formation before Rangers equalised in the 24th minute. It was a fine move down the right flank, Jack and Davis combining smartly to send James Tavernier bursting clear and his low cross was shanked high into his own net by Goncalves.
A minute later, the turnaround was complete for Rangers as they went 2-1 up. It was another impressively structured goal, the ball moved swiftly and accurately before Morelos switched the play from right to left and picked out Kamara. The Finnish international cut back onto his right foot on the edge of the penalty area and steered a low shot beyond the right hand of Benfica goalkeeper Odisseas Vlachodimos.
Firmly in command
Rangers now had total control of proceedings with Davis dictating the tempo while Jack delivered another valuable contribution in terms of smothering the best efforts of Benfica to plot a route back into contention. Aribo should have made it 3-1 in the 31st minute when he wastefully headed wide a brilliant cross from Borna Barisic, then fine defending from Vertonghen snuffed out the first sight of goal of the night for Morelos.
Any concern that Rangers might pay for not taking full advantage of their dominance seemed to have disappeared with Morelos’ milestone moment six minutes into the second half. It was as simple as any of his now club record haul of European goals. It was yet another assist from Tavernier who broke free on the right again and flashed the ball across the six yard box to provide Morelos with a tap-in.
But after a Kent shot hit a post, another error from Helander gave Benfica encouragement when Nunez was able to set up Silva to make it 3-2. Even then, Rangers looked relatively unfazed before they were caught out again in the 91st minute when Nunez raced through the middle to equalise.
Benfica: Vlachodimos, Goncalves (Gilberto 46), Vertonghen, Otamendi, Tavares (Grimaldo 46); Pizzi (Jardel 21), Weigl, Taarabt; Everton (Waldschmidt 67), Seferovic (Nunez 60), Silva.
Rangers: McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Helander, Barisic; Davis, Jack, Kamara; Aribo (Arfield 69), Morelos, Kent.
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