Steven Gerrard has no particular reason to care about broader endorsement of the progress he has overseen at Rangers. The imminent arrival of a long-awaited domestic title at Ibrox will afford Gerrard and his players a status level magnified by years of frustration. Still, progression to the last 16 of the Europa League for a second season in a row does no harm whatsoever to the profile of Rangers, their manager and a group of players who will now inevitably draw external interest.
There was the odd anxious moment against Royal Antwerp but Rangers were worthy of this latest success. The Scottish club are yet to lose over 90 minutes in Europe this season, having started their Europa League campaign in the second qualifying round. The second knockout round needn’t be the ceiling, given the potency and ruthlessness Rangers displayed against a sloppy Antwerp team. By full-time, they were rampant.
Last week’s wonderfully entertaining first leg was due in no small part to woeful defending, and Belgians were baring gifts within 10 minutes of kick-off here as Jérémy Gelin made an almighty mess of a back pass. Ryan Kent nipped in to steal the ball, and the ex-Liverpool man’s cut back allowed Alfredo Morelos to stroke into an empty net. Kent and Morelos were to torture the Antwerp defence on umpteen occasions thereafter.
At 5-3 up, Rangers should have been set for a comfortable evening. An angled drive from Ianis Hagi stung the palms of Ortwin de Wolf as Gerrard’s men looked to settle the tie. Yet after such a rocky opening – and perhaps while recalling the defensive frailty of Rangers – Antwerp responded.
Jordan Lukaku’s play on the left wing proved too much for Leon Balogun to handle. Lukaku’s cross found Lior Refaelov, Antwerp’s star man from the first leg. A calm finish, flicked beyond Allan McGregor, restored parity on the night. As Lukaku slammed a shot into McGregor’s side-netting shortly before the interval, it appeared Rangers’ path to the last 16 wouldn’t be as straightforward as it had earlier seemed.
But it took less than 20 second-half seconds for Gerrard’s nerves to be eased. Nathan Patterson should be known for his talent, which is at a level whereby he is arguably the finest young player in Scotland. Instead, the 19-year-old grabbed headlines as one of five Rangers personnel who breached Covid protocols at a flat party. Isolation ruled Patterson out of the first leg. Having only been introduced at half-time, he burst forward to collect a Morelos pass and beat De Wolf at his far post. If not forgotten, all was surely forgiven.
Morelos continued his positive influence on the game by pulling the ball back for Kent to notch Rangers’ third. De Wolf did get a hand to the winger’s close-range shot but was ultimately powerless.
If Antwerp now had no option but to perform with gay abandon, they were assisted for their second goal by their opposition. McGregor collided with his centre-back Connor Goldson as Didier Lamkel Zé lurked in pursuit of a long ball. The clean-up work was provided by the striker, who finished from an acute angle before McGregor could recover his position. Some 148 minutes between Antwerp and Rangers had by now produced 12 goals.
The unlucky 13th for Antwerp arrived from the penalty spot. Martin Hongla bundled Morelos to the ground, with Borna Barisic stepping forward to complete a hat-trick of penalties over the two games. It was kind of Barisic, then, to hand the ball to Cedric Itten when a stoppage-time spot-kick was awarded for a foul on Scott Wright. Itten blasted in Rangers’ fifth, and the 9-5 scoreline rightly depicted two madcap jousts.