RANGERS fans have enjoyed their European football this week. Having watched on with glee as Celtic were dumped out of the Champions League qualifiers by CFR Cluj, last night they saw their heroes join them in play-off round of the Europa league as they completed this comprehensive dismantling of the second-best team Denmark had to offer last season. The only fly in the ointment of pretty much a perfect week came when Alfredo Morelos appeared to tweak a hamstring as he chased his hat-trick with the match already won.
Midtjylland have taken the Danish title twice in the last four seasons and currently sit joint top with a 100% record, but they were decidedly second best here, a 7-3 aggregate scoreline which summed up the difference between these two sides.
With as arduous an opponent as Legia Warsaw waiting in the next round, it would be wrong to say that Steven Gerrard’s side are in Pole position to reach the group stages for the second successive season. But that is three rounds down, one to go. You certainly wouldn’t count them out, even if the big prize for many at the club this season is stopping Celtic’s ambitions for nine top-flight titles in a row. Whether one, both or neither, make it into the continent’s second club competition could have a huge say in determining the outcome of that one.
Gerrard made three changes from the side which thrashed Hibs on Sunday. Out went Jordan Jones, Joe Aribo and Jermain Defoe, and in came Glen Kamara, Scott Arfield and Alfredo Morelos.
It was a show of the strength of the Englishman’s squad, with Andy King – a title winner with Leicester City – set to augment his midfield resources on a season-long loan before the window closes with the blessing of manager Brendan Rodgers.
Midtjylland manager Kenneth Andersen brought his team to Scotland dreaming of taking a page out of CFR Cluj’s book by overturning an unfavourable first leg position to prevail in Glasgow.
He brought his namesake Mikael into the starting line-up at the expense of Finland international Tim Sparv but otherwise this was the same team which were shocked 4-2 in Denmark, which meant former Celtic man Erik Sviatchenko continuing at centre half.
There is a knack to keeping the back door closed on European nights and not all teams at this level have it. The Danes threw caution to the wind, lining up with three at the back, and everything might have been different had they been able to make early inroads into their arrears, something they all so nearly achieved within the first minute. A cute pass from Brazilian Evander sent new boy Andersen on his way, and there were oohs and aahs as his finish shaved the post.
The three-at-the-back left vast areas of real estate down the sides, however, and Rangers had the personnel to exploit it.
Their forward players had already had a look or two by the time Scott Arfield released Ojo down the left just before the quarter of an hour mark.
The on-loan Liverpool man, perhaps overshadowed in the wide areas by Jones in the last week or so, unselfishly rolled it into Morelos, who had the confidence to take the ball onto his left before finding the bottom corner from close range.
Rangers were comfortable now, even if McGregor wasn’t inclined to accept the apologies from the aptly-named Sory Kaba when he clattered him as he chased vainly after a through pass. The big striker can play a bit too, mind you. He was a metre off target after a quality turn which gave him space away from Katic.
Scott Arfield turns 31 in November, but he has always had the quality to hurt teams, particularly when allowed to recharge his batteries by taking a game off every now and then. Having had a hand in the opener, he had the vision to play Morelos in for a chance down the right this time, Jesper Hansen beating the little Colombian’s effort out for a corner.
But his piece de resistance was still to come. Breaking from deep, the man lost to Scotland internationally to be part of the Canadian ranks, beat two men with his skill, then used his willingness to throw himself into the tackle to rebuff the attentions of another. While Morelos made a meal of controlling his pass, his cutback was perfect for Ojo to gleefully roll in the second.
The Ibrox side were in easy street, and their fans could start booking their flights for Poland just four minutes into the second half. Glen Kamara won the ball high up the park, and found Ojo out wide, the little Colombian timing his run perfectly to alight on the cross as he lashed it high into the net.
This wasn’t a perfect display from Rangers, who could have conceded on the night before they did. McGregor had to save well in the opening part of that second half from the dangerous Gustav Wikheim. He then beat out a shot from Evander but was powerless to prevent the 21-year-old Brazilian notching a consolation goal for the Danes, sweeping a cross from the right into the bottom corner from six yards.
It was far too little, far too late, but at least Midtjylland posed a threat in those last 20 minutes, Sory’s apologies again falling on deaf ears with McGregor when he lunged in late on. Morelos had an eye on his hat-trick when he got a nudge in the act of shooting and appeared to tweak a hamstring, trudging round the pitch to applause while Jermain Defoe replaced him. You can ount him out for East Fife on Sunday, although judging by the manner he went out – albeit rather gingerly – to shake hands and clap the fans late on, he will be back and firing by the time Warsaw and the Old Firm match in September 1 ticks round.
Morelos 14, 49. Ojo 39
FC Midtjylland 1