Rangers secured their place in the Europa League knockout round play-offs after Alfredo Morelos’ double got the Giovanni van Bronckhorst era up and running with a 2-0 victory against Sparta Prague at Ibrox.
With Van Bronckhorst watching on from the dugout for the first time, the hosts made an excellent start and took the lead in the 15th minute through Morelos’ first-time strike.
The visitors gifted Morelos his second of the game straight after the restart but Rangers missed a host of chances to put the game out of sight in the second half.
Van Bronckhorst needed a spectacular double save from his former Ibrox team-mate, Allan McGregor, to maintain Rangers’ two-goal lead and they held on to secure a win that gets the Dutchman’s reign off to a winning start.
The victory ensures Rangers, who will face a team who finished third in their Champions League group when the Europa League restarts in the new year, moved out of sight of Brondby ahead of their final game against Group A winners Lyon – and their 2-1 aggregate score over Sparta means the Czech side cannot overturn a three-point deficit.
How Rangers made a winning start under Van Bronckhorst …
The home side started brightly and Joe Aribo hit the top of the bar after Ryan Kent had burst past two defenders and cut the ball back.
The opener came after James Tavernier spotted Ianis Hagi’s run into the right channel. The Romania international helped the ball inside for Morelos, who swept home first time from 18 yards.
Aribo soon had another great chance following a similar move but side-footed inches over as Hagi’s cross bounced invitingly around the six-yard line.
It was not one-way traffic though as Rangers gave up plenty of possession and territory in the first half. McGregor was forced into a good near-post stop with his foot from Martin Minchev after Kent had been beaten on the bye-line.
Kent had an excellent chance to double the lead when he brushed off his marker to run on to Connor Goldson’s diagonal ball. The winger curled just wide.
The home side were ahead seconds later after a massive blunder by Filip Panak. The central defender attempted a lofted square pass over the head of Morelos but only succeeded in setting up the Colombian to head home from 10 yards.
Rangers soon broke clear again as Hagi’s pass sent Kent away but the winger’s shot was blocked by goalkeeper Dominik Halec with Morelos looking for a square ball.
The Sparta defense maintained a high line and continued to be exposed. Morelos saw a shot saved after getting Aribo’s low cross stuck between his feet, and headed just over after his team-mate returned the ball.
Rangers team news
Van Bronckhorst made two changes after watching Rangers exit the Premier Sports Cup from the Hampden stands on Sunday.
Calvin Bassey came in at center-back as Leon Balogun dropped out of the 22-man squad after a poor display in the 3-1 defeat by Hibernian. Ianis Hagi also came in for Scott Arfield while there was a change to the 4-3-3 formation favored by Steven Gerrard for the vast majority of his tenure.
Van Bronckhorst started with Steven Davis and Glen Kamara in central midfield with Hagi and Ryan Kent out wide and Joe Aribo employed just behind lone striker Morelos.
Nathan Patterson replaced Hagi on the right flank before Aribo passed up another excellent chance, chipping off target after being set up by Kent.
Sparta suddenly started creating chances around the 70-minute mark. Adam Karabec saw a weak effort saved and then headed just wide either side of Adam Hlozec blazing over from 16 yards.
Rangers were looking ragged and McGregor came to their rescue with an excellent diving stop from a header before saving the follow-up with his leg while grounded.
What Van Bronckhorst said …
Rangers boss Giovanni van Bronckhorst to BT Sport:
“From the first minute on, we were in the game.
“We were pressing them with a good rhythm of play and creating chances.
“We created enough chances in the first half to win the game in the first half. I was really proud of the guys, they did really well and kept pushing for the win.”
Opta stats: Morelos fires Rangers into knockout stage …
Rangers have won two of their last three in Europe (D1), after enjoying just one victory in their previous eight (D2 L5 incl. Qualifiers).
Sparta Prague have lost three consecutive UEFA Europa League games (excl. Qualifiers) for the first time since September 2016 (also 3 in total)
Rangers have scored five goals in their last three European games, one more than they managed in their previous eight (4 incl. Qualifiers).
Morelos has scored 13 goals in European competition for Rangers (excl. Qualifiers), the joint-most by any player in the club’s history, level with Ralph Brand. He has netted 13 goals in the UEFA Europa League since the start of 2018-19, a haul only Munas Dabbur (17), Bruno Fernandes (16) and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (14) can better in that time.
Rangers travel to Livingston in the Scottish Premiership on Sunday, live on Sky Sports; kick-off at 12pm.
Meanwhile, Van Bronckhorst’s side are away to Lyon in their final Europa League group game on Thursday December 9 (kick-off 5.45pmpm).