Rangers needed a response to the weekend’s crushing setback against Celtic, which effectively ended their title hopes, and did enough here to ensure their Europa League quarter-final remains finely poised. The regret will be that they conceded to Braga’s Abel Ruiz in the 40th minute during the only spell when they were truly under the cosh. Otherwise they showed up well in a largely uneventful affair and will consider the Portuguese side vulnerable at Ibrox.
The big encouragement Rangers can hold is that they have passed this very test before, albeit with wins in both legs. In February 2020 they beat Braga twice in the round of 32, winning the away fixture with a goal from Ryan Kent. Within five minutes of kick-off he had come close to repeating the trick: a beautiful ball from Scott Arfield created the chance, sending Kent free, but a heavy touch allowed the goalkeeper Matheus to shovel away. Fashion Sakala’s follow-up was blocked but the episode characterised Rangers’ lively start.
Arfield then almost located Sakala after slick play by Kent. Braga were concerned when Matheus needed treatment as a result of that early intervention and there was little reason to expect Rangers could not continue thriving. Braga were rattled by their visitors’ speed. Glen Kamara, one of three reintroductions to the starting XI after their Old Firm defeat, was hauled over by one centre-back, Fabiano, and then chopped down by another in David Carmo.
When examined, though, Rangers courted danger. A cross from Yan Couto, the excellent Manchester City loanee, caused consternation that led to Ricardo Horta rapping the post. Then the other Horta, his brother André, found the bottom corner but VAR intervened for an infringement by Fabiano. In response Sakala blasted over but five minutes before the break Braga exposed them critically. A smart right-sided move ended with Ruiz, who got an awkward ball out of his feet and whipped low around Allan McGregor from 15 yards. This time it counted.
Matheus earned applause with a dink to get past Arfield 10 minutes after the interval. Rangers had held their own since half-time without getting behind their hosts. Arfield saw one volley blocked; Braga were hardly overcommitting and a sense grew of the scoreline being mutually acceptable.
A triple substitution by Giovanni van Bronckhorst, with Kemar Roofe among those introduced, suggested that might not necessarily be the case but proceedings were scratchy and tight. In the 71st minute, though, Connor Goldson should have levelled when the Braga defence froze at a corner. He was all alone and had to do better than head wide. Rangers pressed late on and, had Alfredo Morelos not been ruled out for the season’s remainder, perhaps he would have conjured something. As it is, the tie remains alive.
“We know the task ahead,” Van Bronckhorst said. “Next week we play at home with the crowd behind us. The atmosphere is very hostile, overwhelming at times, and you saw after 70 minutes [Braga] dropped their energy levels a bit. We have to give all our energy to get into the semis.”