Stodgy Rangers now in danger despite securing European football after Christmas as fans boo Todd Cantwell sub but cheer Sam Lammers exit
And, er, that was it for the pluses for the Ibrox men from a 1-1 draw in which they were stodgier than a plum pudding. A 49th-minute equaliser that claimed substitute Ross McCausland his first senior goal was required to repair some of the damage inflicted by Shava Babicka’s deadlock-breaker just before the half-hour mark.
It will be indigestible to the club’s support and their manager Philippe Clement that a home meeting with the Group C’s fourth seeds earned only a point that means, at the worst, they will parachute in the Conference League last 16 play-offs. Because this might also prove to be the likely best outcome for Rangers in their section. Should Sparta Prague – fresh from beating Real Betis – beat Aris in Cyrpus on the final game-day in a fortnight, then Rangers would require a victory in Seville to avoid missing out on the top two placings that would allow them to continue in the Europa League in the new year.
The whole mood music around the encounter was that Aris would present no significant problems for their hosts. Never mind that the Cypriots had won when the pair met at the start of October. This 2-1 success over opponents then helmed by temporary manager Steven Davis considered of little importance owing to Rangers subsequent resurgence under Philippe Clement. The requirement to field Ben Davies and John Souttar as a centre-back pairing with Connor Goldson suspended and Leon Balogun ineligible was treated similarly, just as was true of the flaws evident in the 1-1 draw at Aberdeen the previous weekend that prevented the Ibrox club making up ground on Celtic in the title race.
Yet, all three elements could be factored in as Clement’s men were initially left in a spin as their visitors hared around with intent. Exhibiting a sharpness at odds with the sluggish, misshapen endeavours of their opponents. There were warnings before this all came together in a 28th minute for Aris which exposed everything that was deficient about Rangers across the first half hour. Todd Cantwell, again deployed on the right of a three behind Danilo, overcooked a dribble to lose possession and allow Aleksandr Kokorin to launch a ball over the top that dissected Souttar and Davies, Babicka motoring away from the latter before cooly rounding Jack Butland and clipping the ball into the empty net.
Clement’s realisation something had to give resulted in the crowd responding with fury to his something proving to be yanking off Cantwell in the 36th minute and replacing him with Ross McCausland. The anti-Sam Lammers faction in the stands outraged that the Dutchman then escaped the chop … wild cheering ensuing when he was hauled off just before the hour.
By then, the querulous denizens of Ibrox had been forced to accept there was method in what they adjudged as Clement’s madness, with McCausland having tied up the scoreline inside only four minutes of the second period. The Northern Irish winger proving clinical – a word that would never have tripped from the tongue for any of his team-mates – when he received the ball wide on the right and made space for himself before drilling a low effort into the far corner.
With that moment, the complexion of the contest was entirely altered. Rangers became imbued with the urgency to pin the Cypriots in, though aside from McCausland coming close on one occasion, they did not fashion the openings they would have expected to ensue from their pressing. It was that sort of night.
The state of play in Group C
Earlier in the night, Sparta Prague defeated Real Betis 1-0 in the Czech capital to leave qualification from Group C of the Europa League up for grabs. With one round of fixtures remaining on December 14, Betis top the pool on nine points, with Rangers second on eight. Sparta are a further point behind on seven points, while Aris are on four and cannot catch the Scottish club. Rangers are in Seville to take on Betis in their final match, while Sparta are in Limassol.
Rangers will top the group and advance to the last 16 of the Europa League should they win against Betis but anything other than victory will leave second place – which brings with it a play-off berth in the tournament – at the mercy of the Czechs, who would overtake them by winning in Cyprus if Rangers don't pick up three points. Should that happen, then Rangers would tumble to third place and drop into the Europa Conference League knock-out phase.