Benfica 2-2 Rangers: Hosts come from behind twice to keep last-16 clash alive after Tom Lawrence and Dujon Sterling had given visitors the lead in Portugal
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Benfica 2-2 Rangers: Hosts come from behind twice to keep last-16 clash alive after Tom Lawrence and Dujon Sterling had given visitors the lead in Portugal

Mar 27, 2024

Walk around Benfica’s iconic Estadio da Luz before a game like this and the experience is a marketing man’s dream.

A high-octane money spinner, kids play mini games of football in the hope of becoming the next Enzo Fernandez, the club shop does a roaring trade, food stalls bustle with life, DJs belt out thumping dance numbers. All of this explains why the Portuguese champions boast a turnover twice as big as Rangers and spent £82million on new signings last summer.

Last night, Argentina World Cup winners Nicolas Otamendi and Angel di Maria were in the starting XI. Forward Rafa Silva began the match with 17 goals in all competitions.

Centre-back Antonio Silva is only 20 but already has seven caps for Portugal, while 19-year-old midfielder Joao Neves has broken into the national side and has some of Europe’s biggest clubs on his trail.

Turkish midfielder Orkun Kokcu arrived for a club record £25m from Feyenoord in pre-season and couldn’t make it on to the pitch last night.

Rangers were held to a 2-2 draw when they visited Benfica on Thursday evening

Rangers were held to a 2-2 draw when they visited Benfica on Thursday evening

Benfica twice came from behind against the Scottish side in their Europa League clash

Benfica twice came from behind against the Scottish side in their Europa League clash

Tom Lawrence (pictured) had given the visitors the lead in the first-half of the last-16 clash

Tom Lawrence (pictured) had given the visitors the lead in the first-half of the last-16 clash

Against a Rangers team which seems to live for the Europa League anthem, all the riches of the Portuguese champions didn’t count for much in the end.

Missing eight first-team players – five in attacking areas – Philippe Clement’s side had no right to match, let alone outplay, a club which spent the equivalent of a small nation’s debt in the summer.

Taking the lead twice before being reeled in by Connor Goldson’s second Europa League own goal in the Estadio da Luz, the Premiership leaders earned a first-leg result which offers a real chance of progress to the quarter-finals when they host Benfica at Ibrox next week.

Resisting the urge to park the bus on the 18-yard line, the Belgian improvised, fielding Fabio Silva and Dujon Sterling as makeshift wide men. A man for all seasons, the ubiquitous Sterling responded by claiming his first-ever senior goal before half-time. But for Goldson’s misfortune after 67 minutes, a Benfica run of 27 home games unbeaten in the Europa League, stretching back to 2009, would surely have fallen.

Rangers needed Jack Butland to have a big night here and, God only knows, he did. If Gareth Southgate was watching this, he would have seen an English keeper at the top of his game almost engaged in a one-man war of attrition with Benfica No 7David Neres.

His first save, after four minutes, was the foundation which allowed the visitors to steal up the pitch and score with their first incursion over the halfway line. There were seven minutes on the clock when former Benfica youth player Silva unpicked his old club by playing in Mohamed Diomande on the left flank.

The Ivorian had a terrific game, hanging up a wonderful cross for Tom Lawrence to time his run perfectly and bury a header in the corner of the net past keeper Anatoliy Trubin. In doing so, the midfielder became the first Welshman to score for Rangers in European competition.

Rangers players gathered in the corner of the stadium to celebrate Lawrence's strike

Rangers players gathered in the corner of the stadium to celebrate Lawrence’s strike

Jack Butland put in a tremendous performance in goal for the visiting side on the night

Jack Butland put in a tremendous performance in goal for the visiting side on the night

The goal gave the Ibrox side something to build on. It sucked the air from a home support demanding a reaction to the shocking 5-0 defeat to Porto on Saturday.

Benfica might have levelled quickly. Exposing James Tavernier on the left flank, Neres found more space for a low strike towards the far post, Butland’s parry falling at the feet of Arthur Cabral. It took a brilliant block from John Souttar to prevent an equaliser. All of which made the calamity which befell the Scotland defender before half-time an undeserved affair.

On a night when even the wind and the rain seemed to suit Rangers, Di Maria’s amateur dramatics had failed to con a penalty after a challenge from Goldson.

Rightly, the German referee waved away claims and when Butland made yet another brilliant block from Neres with his left boot, it seemed Rangers might make it to half-time unscathed. With VAR on the premises, you take nothing for granted.

Di Maria’s corner struck the raised arm of Souttar and these days that means only one thing. The defender seemed to head the ball against his own outstretched arm but, after a lengthy deliberation, Tobias Stieler was sent to the pitchside monitor. After an eternal wait, Butland was booked for prolonging the agony before diving the wrong way from Di Maria’s spot kick. Benfica were level and they barely deserved it.

Dujon Sterling struck home from close range to restore Rangers' lead in the second-half

Dujon Sterling struck home from close range to restore Rangers’ lead in the second-half

The VAR delays added five minutes to the first half and restored a measure of justice for Rangers.

Sterling had never scored a goal in senior football until last night. When Fabio Silva gathered the ball from Tavernier and drove a low cross through the legs of former Benfica team-mate Joao Neves, the ball fell perfectly for Sterling to slot Rangers back into the lead.

Rangers had lost just four of their 22 previous meetings with Portuguese teams in European competitions. As half-time arrived, this one was following an established pattern.

Despite Benfica’s dominance of the ball, despite their desperate need for a goal, Rangers always carried a threat. In hindsight, Fabio Silva will feel he should have scored a third goal when he went near post with a shot instead of the far corner.

That became more costly when Benfica finally cracked the Rangers resistance after 67 minutes. For the second time in the game, the menace came from a Di Maria set-piece.

Connor Goldson unfortunately scored an own-goal that saw the match end in a draw

Connor Goldson unfortunately scored an own-goal that saw the match end in a draw

Winning a free-kick 35 yards from the Rangers goal, the World Cup winger curled a delicious ball into a crowded area. God knows what was in Goldson’s mind when he planted a header in the top corner beyond Butland. His own goal breathed fresh life into the home team.

What a night this proved for 21-year-old Cole McKinnon. From the misfortune of others comes opportunity and the young midfielder, thrust on as part of a triple late change, produced an outstanding block to stop Di Maria firing Benfica into the lead with 11 minutes to play.

Benfica were unbeaten in their last 13 home games, having not lost on their own turf since Real Sociedad’s Champions League triumph in November. It’s a measure of the growth of this Rangers team that the run was only preserved by a penalty and an own goal.

After a 5-0 thrashing from Porto at the weekend, Benfica coach Roger Schmidt refused to say sorry. If Rangers finish the tie at Ibrox next week, the German will be lucky to keep his job.

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