Injury-hit Rangers twice pegged back by Benfica

By Sports Desk March 07, 2024

Rangers twice surrendered the lead to draw the first leg of their Europa League last-16 tie against Benfica 2-2.

Philippe Clement’s squad was hit by injuries but returning midfielder Tom Lawrence gave the visitors a dramatic early lead with a header before Angel Di Maria levelled with a penalty kick in first-half added time after VAR intervened to highlight that Gers defender John Souttar had used his arm inside the box.

Light Blues’ utility player Dujon Sterling restored the lead in the fifth of five minutes of added time with his first career goal only for Gers defender Connor Goldson to head into his own goal midway through the second half to take the tie back to Glasgow next Thursday night level.

Much of the pre-match talk was around Clement’s limited options in attack. He was without the services of four injured wingers – Abdallah Sima, Scott Wright, Rabbi Matondo and Oscar Cortes – albeit the latter is not in the European squad. With Ross McCausland only fit to start on the bench, it meant no natural width in attack.

Portuguese attacker Fabio Silva, who spent two seasons with Benfica as a youth player, supported main striker Cyriel Dessers from the left with Sterling working off the right.

Under-pressure home boss Roger Schmidt was looking for his side to bounce back from their 5-0 thrashing by title rivals Porto at the weekend and he had a host of big names in the starting line-up including Argentina World Cup winners Nicolas Otamendi and Di Maria.

Around 3,500 Rangers fans were in position to see Gers goalkeeper Jack Butland make an early save at his near post from David Neres’ drive.

And moments later they were off their seats cheering when Silva sent Mohamed Diomande free inside the box and he lifted the ball for the in-rushing Lawrence to head down past diving keeper Anatoliy Trubin.

Butland then made a double save, first from Neres and then from striker Arthur Cabral from the loose ball, albeit his effort had been partially blocked by Souttar.

However, after VAR Marco Fritz intervened following another Benfica corner, the Gers defender was adjudged by referee German referee Tobias Stieler to have hit the ball with his arm as he defended the delivery and Di María sent Butland the wrong way with his assured penalty.

There was more first-half drama to come in the final minute of the five added when Sterling, signed from Chelsea in the summer, stole in to convert a deflected Silva cross from close range, with a VAR check confirming his landmark goal.

Both sides went for more goals from the start of the second half, with Cabral heading wide at the back post from a Rafa Silva cross before Trubin blocked a Silva effort at the other end.

However, Benfica were level again in the 67th minute when Di Maria floated in a free-kick from 35 yards and Goldson stretched to clear but only sent it past Butland.

The home side sensed a winner was there for them and Di Maria somehow missed the target from 12 yards.

In the 77th minute Kemar Roofe, Ryan Jack and Cole McKinnon took over from Dessers, Lawrence and Sterling but Benfica’s steady pressure continued to the final whistle.

The return game promises more thrills and spills but Rangers will look to complete the job in Govan.

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