Controlled, composed and convincing. Giovanni van Bronckhorst will face sterner challenges as the manager of Rangers – Sparta Prague provided feeble opposition – but this has to be considered a wholly acceptable start to his tenure. For good measure, following this dismissal of the Czechs, it was confirmed Rangers will progress to the knockout stages of the Europa League for a third year in succession. A boost, perhaps, to the new manager’s January transfer aspirations.
On an evening full of positives for Van Bronckhorst, the role of Alfredo Morelos was most notable. The striker, not unreasonably criticised for his form already this season, scored twice and was a general menace to the Sparta defence. So far, so good, for the former Feyenoord manager’s regime. Rangers played with zip, purpose and aggression throughout.
Having been afforded just two days of full training with his players, there was never much likelihood of Van Bronckhorst making a discernable difference to what he inherited from Steven Gerrard for this tie. Rangers opened in their new manager’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation. On Wednesday, the Dutchman had spoken boldly about the implementation of change yet it only seems fair to assume this will require time.
Still, Rangers were sharp from the outset. Van Bronckhorst was almost handed the ideal start. After fifth- minute trickery from Ryan Kent, so significant to Rangers’ attacking ploys, Joe Aribo swerved a shot off the Sparta crossbar. This early spell of dominance was soon to be rewarded.
Morelos’s opening goal was one of blissful simplicity. James Tavernier, the captain, slid a pass though to Ianis Hagi. The Romanian was undoubtedly helped by ponderous defending but still did what was required, squaring the ball to his centre forward. Morelos swept home his 26th European goal for Rangers with a minimum of fuss from 18 yards.
Any sense of ill-feeling in the stands proved unfounded. That was due in no small part to the tiny contingent from Prague; 63 at a rough count. That Slavia Prague’s defender Ondrej Kudela was found guilty of racism towards Rangers’ Glen Kamara by Uefa during a game here last season should have had nothing to do with their city rivals. However, audible jeering of the Finnish midfielder as Rangers fell to a 1-0 defeat against Sparta in September fuelled a sense of unease. In this first half, the Rangers support had an impressive on-field display to purr over.
Aribo should have doubled the lead, instead somehow lobbing wide of Dominik Holec’s goal from a wonderful Hagi cross. Sparta eventually produced some attacking intent 24 minutes in, Allan McGregor saving smartly with his feet from Martin Minchev. The visitors actually ended the period strongly, without further troubling the veteran Rangers custodian. Rangers were good value for their interval lead.
Kent curled narrowly wide of the upright two minutes after the restart, after a long Connor Goldson pass. Sparta’s inability to complete the fundamentals during what happened next allowed Rangers in for their second goal.
This really was ridiculous stuff. Having received a goal kick inside his own penalty area, Filip Panak inexplicably decided it was a good idea to try to chip the ball back to Holec. The trouble was, Morelos was lurking. The striker had a simple of task to intercept and nod the ball into the unguarded Sparta net. Laughter mixed with celebration among the Rangers support. Kent should have settled things when sent clean through, Holec instead denying the former Liverpool man with his feet.
Rangers now had their crucial head-to-head advantage over Sparta in Group A. It was instructive, then, that Van Bronckhorst’s men looked keen on adding to their advantage rather than protecting it. Holec used his lower half again, this time to block a shot from the spinning and hat-trick-seeking Morelos.
News that Lyon had forged ahead against Brondby made Rangers’ task simple. The keeping of a clean sheet, somewhat problematic in this campaign, would seal qualification. Adam Karabec missed a glorious chance to burst Van Bronckhorst’s bubble with a back-post header. McGregor produced an outstanding double save from Ladislav Krejci and Matej Pulkrab. Ibrox rose to acclaim the goalkeeper. At the full-time whistle, Van Bronckhorst stood front and centre. Onwards, to domestic duties.