Redemption for Morelos as striker leads Rangers into last 32 of Europa League
Alfredo Morelos shook off his Hampden nightmare as his strike helped Rangers to a 1-1 draw with Young Boys that sealed their place in the Europa League last 32.
But Borna Barisic’s late own goal denied Steven Gerrard’s side, who had Ryan Jack sent off in stoppage time, top spot in Group G and they could now come up against one of the sides knocked out of the Champions League when the tournament resumes next year.
Morelos was the Light Blues’ fall guy during Sunday’s Betfred Cup final defeat to Celtic, missing a penalty and a series of golden chances.
But the Colombian brushed off any lingering self-doubt as he stroked home his 26th goal of the season.
He now has 14 alone in Europe, but this one – the fifth group game in a row in which he has netted – was the most precious of the lot as it extended Rangers’ continental campaign beyond Christmas for the first time since 2011.
Rangers dominated the first half but retreated into their shell after the break, with Barisic’s late blunder allowing Porto to snatch top spot with their win over Feyenoord in Portugal.
Gerrard had urged his men to take the opportunity to blast away the mood of despondency hanging over Ibrox since Sunday’s bitter defeat.
And they set about that task with real zeal. Balls were fired into the box from left and right as Ryan Kent, Morelos and Scott Arfield all had early sniffs.
But, given their experience against Hoops when they could not find a way past Fraser Forster, those inside Ibrox could have been forgiven for harbouring concerns.
There was certainly a strong sense of deja vu after 21 minutes as Joe Aribo slipped the ball in behind for Morelos as the front man timed his run to perfection.
Instead of Forster, this time it was David Von Ballmoos bearing down on the Light Blues’ top-scorer but the result was the same as the keeper threw out a leg to deny him the opener.
Seconds later Gers had a strong penalty claim dismissed by German referee Felix Brych as Frederik Sorensen clipped Morelos’ heel as he drove into the box.
The Colombian might have feared he was set for another night of despair but, as the half-hour mark approached, a pair of helping hands from the Swiss saw his luck suddenly transformed.
First Nicolas Burgy fired the ball straight at Kent under no pressure at all. Sorensen then had the chance to intercept the winger’s through-ball but instead fired it off Morelos’ shins.
Given all he has been through in recent days, it was with impressive calm that the striker rolled the ball into the net for the opener.
There was nothing sedate about the celebrations as Ibrox erupted and nine of Morelos’ outfield team-mates rushed to embrace the scorer, who appeared to signal his apologies for Sunday’s aberration to the fans in the Broomloan Road end.
However, there was a reminder in first-half stoppage time that Rangers still had work to do to seal their place in the knockout stage as Kent gifted possession away in the Young Boys half, with Christian Fassnacht – the match-winner when the sides last met in Bern – flashing a header just over.
Morelos got away from Sorensen just as the action resumed but let the angle get too tough as Von Ballmoos blocked again.
It was no surprise that Young Boys stepped things up as they looked to rescue their own qualification hopes.
Fassnacht was again the danger man as he forced Allan McGregor to tip over after Gers allowed their grip on the midfield battle to loosen.
Nerves started to creep into the Rangers display the closer they got to the finishing line.
Glen Kamara was loose with his passing, while even the normally dependable McGregor sent a kick into touch.
The inevitable occurred with just two minutes left as Barisic could not get out of the path of Felix Mambimbi’s strike.
The tension only increased moments later as Jack was dismissed for a second booking but the final whistle soon brought the moment of sweet relief Ibrox was longing for.