Goals from Alfredo Morelos, James Tavernier and Lassana Coulibaly helped Gers to the victory over the Slovenian side at Ibrox
James Tavernier showed just why Steven Gerrard batted away interest from West Brom as the Rangers captain’s penalty helped them towards a 3-1 win over Maribor at Ibrox.
Gers rejected an approach by the Championship club earlier this week ahead of the Scottish side’s clash with the Slovenians.
And it was the captain who took on the responsibility of firing the Light Blues back in front after their sluggish first-half display had threaten to hand the visitors the first-leg momentum.
Alfredo Morelos was back in the side following his Pittodrie dismissal but and was again at the thick of the drama, first putting Rangers ahead, then wasting a golden opportunity by getting himself caught offside before eventually winning the spot-kick that nudged the hosts back in front.
Lassana Coulibaly’s late header put daylight between the teams but Mitja Viler’s strike for Maribor means there is still work to be done in next Thursday’s return fixture.
Gerrard’s squad was a little lighter ahead of kick-off after Josh Windass and Declan John were allowed to seal deadline-day moves to Wigan and Swansea respectively, while Ryan Jack missed out due to the concussion he sustained at Aberdeen.
But with Tavernier leading the team out and Morelos restored to his starting slot following the red card – subsequently downgraded to yellow – that he received against the Dons, the hosts started with confidence.
And it was the Colombian who gave Rangers the dream start with the opener inside five minutes.
Daniel Candeias and Scott Arfield’s pressing pinned the Slovenians into the far corner as Marko Suler was stripped of possession.
Arfield quickly fed the ball to Ryan Kent and while the Liverpool youngster’s side-footed effort was stopped by Jasmin Handanovic, the Maribor keeper could do nothing as Morelos jumped on the rebound.
But rather than build on that opening, it was a ragged Rangers which emerged.
A drop in focus seemed to sweep through the Light Blues, and even the usually dependable Allan McGregor had to be bailed out by Connor Goldson when he spilled a speculative strike from Aleks Pihler.
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Amir Derisevic was at the heart of everything Maribor created and it took an impressive McGregor block to prevent the beanpole midfielder scoring as strode onto a Marcos Tavares through-ball before Tavernier blocked Luka Zahovic’s rebound.
Tavernier’s timing had to be perfect again as another superb ball from Derisevic sent Denis Klinar sprinting in behind Jon Flanagan, with the captain making it just in time to deny Gregor Bajde a tap-in.
Then came a two-minute spell that Rangers may yet come to regret. First on 38 minutes, in a staggering display of thoughtlessness, Morelos allowed himself to be caught offside after Handanovic fired the ball straight to Candeias, whose quick-thinking should have led to a second goal as he squared to his team-mate to bundle into an empty net.
That blunder was punished in devastating fashion as Derisevic fired a perfect cross-field pass from deep to Viler, who lashed first-time past McGregor.
After a Gerrard earbashing at the break, Rangers came back out with their concentration levels restored.
They almost got an immediate reward as Coulibaly’s spin and shot forced Handanovic to push over.
But Morelos made swift amends on 49 minutes. Twisting one way then another, he lured Ivkovic into a trip that had Israeli referee Roi Reinshereiber pointing straight to the spot.
Tavernier stroked home from 12 yards to restore Rangers’ lead before forcing Handanovic into a brilliant fingertip save as he fired towards the top corner from 20 yards out.
Coulibaly then ensured Rangers will take a two-goal lead to the Stadion Ljudski next week as he nodded home from Murphy’s cross with five minutes left.