Steven Gerrard praised the “quality and character” of his Rangers side after they scored a couple of late goals to edge a 4-3 thriller with Royal Antwerp in their Europa League last-32 first leg.
The Scottish Premiership leaders trailed 2-1 and 3-2 at Bosuilstadion but won the seven-goal classic through substitute Ryan Kent’s strike and a second Borna Barisic penalty in the final seven minutes.
Rangers, who lost captain James Tavernier and attacker Kemar Roofe to injury in the first half, are now unbeaten in all seven matches in this season’s competition proper and have tasted defeat just once in their last 40 games overall.
And while Gerrard admitted to being concerned about the poor defending on show – the Gers conceding as many goals in Thursday’s match as in their last 11 matches combined – he was pleased with the way his side dug deep to pick up the win.
“I am just waiting for the heart rate to come down,” he said. “It was a fantastic game. I am sure all the neutrals enjoyed it. But from a manager’s point of view there is certainly a lot to analyse.
“Obviously, defensively we haven’t been at it tonight, we haven’t been at our very best. We have conceded three goals and that is the second time at this level that we have done that. That tells me we have a lot of work to do in terms of our organisation.
— Rangers Football Club (@RangersFC) February 18, 2021
“But it is very difficult to win away from home in Europe. Experience of Scottish teams going out in Europe tells me that.
“It is very difficult to win at this level way from home. I have got to give the boys credit for winning the game. I thought we were much better in the second half.”
Felipe Avenatti’s header and a contentious Lior Refaelov penalty late in the first half gave Antwerp, competing in their first European knockout tie since 1994-95, the lead after Joe Aribo had opened the scoring.
Barisic was making his 100th appearance for Rangers and levelled up with the first of his two penalties, before Martin Hongla found the bottom-left corner with a deflected shot to put the visitors back in front.
But substitute Kent, who was not deemed fit enough to start the game, scored a third away goal for the Gers and Barisic converted from a last-minute penalty awarded for handball against Abdoulaye Seck, who was red carded as a result.
“I said to them at half-time not to panic,” Gerrard added. “We were 2-1 down, but even if the game stayed at 2-1 it wasn’t the end of the world, because we had got the away goal.
“I had seen enough in the first 45 minutes to tell me we could cause this team problems.
“Obviously, the injury didn’t help us when it happened. I thought we lost a bit of our rhythm at the time. But I always knew I had quality on the bench to add to it. I thought Ryan showed his freshness coming on.
1 – Rangers have only lost one of their last 40 matches across all competitions, with 33 of these ending in victories (D6). Lofty. pic.twitter.com/2a6ry6EgDQ
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 18, 2021
“He scored a wonderful goal. Over the course of the 90 minutes we deserved to win the game. We could have scored a few more goals. It’s a crazy football match to analyse just now because it has only just finished.
“But it shows we have got quality and character in our team.”
Rangers are now the favourites to progress from next week’s second leg at Ibrox as they aim to reach the last 16 of the competition in successive seasons.
However, they may be without Tavernier – arguably their key man – and Roofe after both players limped off in the first half.
Providing an update on the pair after the game, Gerrard told BT Sport: “Kemar’s got another calf so that’s a concern. He’s getting too many of those calves at the moment so we’re going to have to look into that and maybe get him to see the right people.
“He’s very down and frustrated at the moment so that’s a blow for us. Obviously James going off as well – he never goes off the pitch so that worries me a bit as well.
“We’ll look at both situations, analyse them over the next couple of days and hopefully they’re not as bad as first feared.”
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