Bullish Philippe Clement has challenged Rangers to make the rest of Europe sit up and take note by reaching the quarter-finals of the Europa League at the expense of Benfica.

The two sides are locked at 2-2 after the first leg in Lisbon and the Ibrox boss, who is ready to welcome influential midfielder Todd Cantwell back into his squad after injury, believes it would be a statement result for his players if they could eliminate the Portuguese title chasers on Thursday.

“We are not naive, we know that Benfica has a really talented squad with a lot of experience also,” Clement said at his pre-match press conference.

“They have World Cup winners in their team, they have a lot of really big talents who will go for a lot of money after this season maybe and other players who have played at a really high level before.

“We know it will be a really big surprise in all of Europe if we can take out Benfica, but we are really hungry to do that.”

Clement told his Rangers players that, if they have aspirations of playing at the very top level, then it is nights like Thursday when they can showcase their abilities.

“It would be something really exciting, because they will show something towards all of Europe (if they get through),” said the manager. “For their career, it can be something really special.

“When you do special things like this, you can come more into attention. I understand the story here in the club that if players can make a step higher than Rangers and there’s a good deal for the club, you need to accept that and find other players to replace them in a good way.

“So in evenings like this, they can make steps in that way. But the most important thing is to understand that it is not an individual thing to show yourself. They can only show themselves if they show themselves as a team.”

Clement admits Benfica are slight favourites, but having led former side Club Brugge to a 2-2 draw in the Bernabeu in October 2019, he will not allow his team to go into the match with any sense of inferiority in front of another capacity Ibrox crowd

“Yes, I think so,” he said when asked if Gers were the underdogs. “If you’re realistic, yes. But in my heart, no.

“I’m always a realistic guy, but I’m a realistic guy who sets the standards high and I know, and I’ve seen, that this team can do that. I told them before the Benfica game that with Brugge we drew 2-2 with Real Madrid and we deserved that.

“We could have won that one, but this Rangers team is better than that Brugge team, so I believe we can win against whatever team we play when things fall on our side. I really believe that.

“I know that Benfica rested four or five players at the weekend towards this game. But my players are ready, I saw enough today, I see the freshness is back, the hunger is really big.

“We know we need to play above our level to qualify, but we are going to do everything to do that and the support of the fans can give something extra.

“This game was sold out really fast. Although it is a really early kick-off and a lot of people have to take a day off work to get to the stadium, we could have sold the stadium two, three times.”

Dujon Sterling will miss out with a minor injury, while Ross McCausland is a doubt, but Cantwell is set to return after missing the last five matches with a hamstring issue.

“He is ready to play an amount of minutes,” said Clement. “He is clearly not ready for 90 minutes, so then it’s about deciding whether to start him or not.

“He feels good and he was good in the training so I’m happy to see him back.”

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.

Boss Philippe Clement claimed Ross McCausland was “kicked off the pitch” in the 2-1 defeat by Motherwell which dented Rangers’ cinch Premiership title hopes.

With the visitors leading through a Theo Bair strike, the Northern Ireland winger had to be replaced by Fabio Silva in the 35th minute after he was caught by Dan Casey after the Fir Park defender won a tackle.

Gers skipper James Tavernier scored from the spot on the hour but Casey’s 74th-minute header gave the Steelmen their first league win at Ibrox since 1997.

It was a first defeat in 12 games for Rangers and although they remain two points clear of Celtic at the top of the table, the Parkhead side get the chance to leapfrog them at Hearts on Sunday.

Clement confirmed beforehand that Oscar Cortes, on loan from Lens, would be out for “a long time” following the muscle injury picked up against Kilmarnock in midweek, with fellow wide-men Abdallah Sima and Rabbi Matondo also out.

The Gers boss said: “Ross is bad because he was kicked off the pitch. There was no foul, no yellow card, no red card.

“When I see how we’ve got red cards in the last few months – then I see this action – I don’t understand it to be honest.

“There is too much intensity. When you have to take a player off in the first-half because he can’t walk any more after contact, you need to realise something bad happened there. But clearly not.

“I didn’t think about the fact the same player scored the winning goal.

“I only think about the chances we had to score. I only think about my team and making it better.”

The Belgian boss would not directly say that Casey should have been red carded by referee Alan Muir, adding: “I am not a referee. And I know every word I say becomes a big thing always.

“I think players need to be better protected. We have now already several players kicked off the pitch this season. I think they need to be protected in a better way.”

It was the first points dropped at home by Clement since taking over from Michael Beale in October and he is expecting a positive reaction.

He said: “That’s the interesting thing now. I didn’t expect to have this moment after five months in the building. I thought it would be much earlier.

“Now I’ll get to know my team even better. I know them really well already. But now I’m going to see who’s going to be the guys to stand up after a disappointment.

“I don’t doubt it too much. They are very disappointed and a lot of heads are down. I’m disappointed too, not to get the three points.

“But you need to cope with it, take the right lessons and learn from it to become better. That’s our ambition now.”

Stuart Kettlewell was delighted with Motherwell’s performance but puzzled by Clement’s assessment of McCausland.

He said: “Everybody has got their own opinion. I don’t see it as kicked off the pitch as such.

“I’ve not seen a replay of the incident but at the time it was very close to me and Dan Casey looked 60-40 favourite, or maybe even more than that, to come through and get the ball.

“At the time I wasn’t seeing anything. The referee doesn’t even book him so it doesn’t look as if there was a foul. He was first man to the ball clearly so I’m a wee bit surprised [by Clement’s comments].”

On his side’s shock victory, the Well boss said: “We were asked plenty of questions, we were put under the cosh.

“We had to go into what I call emergency defending in the dying embers. We know that you are going to have to go through all that to get something here – you are going to have to suffer. Of that there is no question.

“When you come here that idea of just sitting in is never going to work. You need to carry a threat on the other side. That is what pleases me most.”

Philippe Clement is “still curious” about the potential of Rangers after they went into the winter break with a bounce-back 3-1 win over Kilmarnock and still on the heels of Celtic.

The Belgian had lost his first game as Gers boss since taking over in October in the narrow 2-1 Old Firm defeat at Parkhead on Saturday but late first-half goals from wide-men Ross McCausland and Abdallah Sima at Ibrox on Tuesday had the Light Blues in control at the break.

Danny Armstrong reduced the deficit in the 58th minute with a penalty awarded after VAR intervention but Todd Cantwell soon restored the two-goal cushion to keep them eight points behind cinch Premiership leaders Celtic with two games in hand.

The Gers players will enjoy a few days off before going to Spain for a training camp next week.

Clement has already brought the Viaplay Cup back to Ibrox and guided the club into the last 16 of the Europa League and was asked about the potential of his squad.

He said: “I am still curious. I am happy that you speak now about the potential of this team.

“Eleven weeks ago, I heard a lot of people saying there was not potential enough in this team to do what Rangers needs to do.

“So it is positive that so many players are  growing, and that is what I want to see. I will keep a close eye, together with my staff, on who are the players staying ambitious, who are the players who are pushing. There are a lot of good examples in that way.

“You have a young lad (Ross McCausland)  who was just in the academy and now he is playing really regular in the first team because he is performing.

“Kieran Dowell, Dujon Sterling, who are now playing in other positions. They have done that for the team, or else they wouldn’t play.

“So, I think this team is in a really good way. The dressing room also.

“The atmosphere every day within the building, with the training, the ambition in the training.

“After our first defeat, which we knew would come one day, the reaction was how I wanted it. We looked at what we had to do to make good, to analyse what went wrong, what we could do better.

“I’m happy that everybody is saying they see a different team now with more of a winning mentality.

“I see more and more quality and that the team understands better and better how I want to see football, how I want to see them run together, how I want them to create spaces for other players. It becomes more and more fluid.

“If the players keep on working, stay attentive, stay concentrated then after a while it becomes more natural for them.

“So there are really positive things. It’s not about being satisfied. It’s about being ambitious to get better.”

Philippe Clement was left puzzled after Rangers conceded a rare penalty in the 3-1 win over Kilmarnock at Ibrox.

The Ibrox club had called for more transparency over VAR’s interpretation of handball after there had been no spot-kick awarded after the ball had come off Celtic defender Alistair Johnston’s hand inside the box in the 2-1 defeat at Parkhead on Saturday.

Rangers were leading 2-0 against fourth-place Killie through goals by Ross McCausland and Abdallah Sima when VAR called for a penalty check after Rory McKenzie’s cross struck the arm of Gers defender John Souttar inside the box.

Referee John Beaton went to his pitchside monitor and then pointed to the spot, with Danny Armstrong giving Jack Butland no chance before Todd Cantwell restored the two-goal lead to keep the Light Blues eight points behind Celtic with two games in hand.

It was the first penalty Rangers had conceded in 75 cinch Premiership matches since Lewis Ferguson netted for Aberdeen in a 1-1 draw in January 2022

Clement told Rangers TV: “The only downside for me is that I cannot explain to my players anymore what is handball and what is not after this game if we get a penalty against like this and a goal against like this three days after what happened at Celtic Park.

“I can’t give them an explanation and that’s different as a manager when you cannot give an explanation.

“It’s not easy. Afterwards, we can laugh and it’s not a big difference, it’s 3-0 or 3-1.

“Just for the future, it needs to be clear for everybody what is handball and what is not handball and these two situations it’s a little bit bizarre.”

Soccer N Ireland

November 17, 2023

Michael O’Neill could point to individual and collective mistakes after Northern Ireland lost 4-0 to Finland in their penultimate Euro 2024 qualifier but the inexperience of his young squad played a major role in Helsinki.

Northern Ireland played well for much of the first half but fell behind to Joel Pohjanpalo’s penalty just before the break, and Daniel Hakans then doubled the lead three minutes into the second half before substitutes Teemu Pukki and Robin Lod added to the score late on.

Ross McCausland made his debut from the start only days after being drafted in as injury cover on Monday, and there was also a late debut for Michael Forbes with O’Neill trying to make up for the raft of missing players.

But it was a sadly familiar story as O’Neill’s men were unable to capitalise on early chances before being punished at the other end.

“We played very well for 40 minutes in the game I thought,” O’Neill said. “We had a plan to make ourselves difficult to beat and to contain Finland and we did it very well, I can’t remember them having any opportunities in that period…

“We created one or two half chances we could have done better with. Then the penalty, for all the work you do in the first 40 minutes you end up going in 1-0 down at half-time because of a penalty.”

Isaac Price clipped Nikolai Alho on the edge of the box before Pohjanpalo sent Conor Hazard the wrong way.

“Probably it’s a challenge he’s better off not attempting,” O’Neill said. “There’s not a lot of contact but there’s enough. The player wasn’t really in a position to shoot, we could possibly have been able to block the shot…

“I was really pleased with the first 40 minutes but obviously by 48 minutes you’re in a really difficult position.”

Hakans’ strike was in many ways the killer blow, coming so early in the second half. The Valerenga winger skipped through four challenges before exchanging passes with Glen Kamara, beating Hazard at his near post.

O’Neill was disappointed with his stand-in goalkeeper, but also accepted more experienced players might have stopped the run by fair means or foul much further from goal.

“It’s a shot that I would not expect to beat my goalkeeper at the near post,” O’Neill said.

“You have to recognise the danger and there’s points in the game where maybe you have to make a technical foul as they call it and we didn’t do that. I felt probably that was something that if I was to be critical of, we didn’t win enough of those types of challenges through the 90 minutes.”

When Finland then introduced Pukki off the bench, with the former Norwich striker scoring the third and creating the fourth, the game quickly went away from Northern Ireland.

“That has been the big difference, the attacking players some of the opposition have had and we saw that tonight with goals three and four,” O’Neill said.

“We’ve got a group of players where a lot of them are new to international football. This is their first campaign. They’re coming into games and the games are going away from them. As a manager I have to support them and back them.

“They have to learn on the job and they’re having to learn quickly.”

The good news is that this miserable qualifying campaign is almost over, with only Monday’s match at home to Denmark remaining.

“When you come out of a defeat you look at the game from a tactical point of view and a performance point of view but what’s most important as a staff and a coach and a group of players is that people don’t question your character or mentality,” O’Neill said.

“That’s what we have to show again on Monday night.”

After another exciting cinch Premiership weekend, Celtic are still eight points clear of Rangers at the top of the table, albeit the Light Blues have a game in hand.

Livingston find themselves bottom after another defeat amid a St Johnstone resurgence.

Here, the PA news agency looks at five things that caught the eye.

Celtic bounce back in style

Brendan Rodgers’ side were thrashed 6-0 by Atletico Madrid in the Champions League in Spain on Tuesday, also ending up with 10 men following the dismissal of Daizen Maeda. The result left them bottom of their group and facing some heavy criticism.

However, they were on top form against an abject Aberdeen side in their Premiership encounter, with South Korean forward Yang Hyun-jun scoring his first Celtic goal and Japan striker Kyogo Furuhashi adding a second before the break.

Winger Luis Palma scored a penalty in the 76th minute and the Dons capitulated in 10 added minutes at the end of the game, with Celtic substitutes David Turnbull and Oh Hyeong-yu (two) on target as Rodgers’ men restored their eight-point lead over Rangers at the top of the table.

Ross McCausland shines on first Rangers start

Philippe Clement’s strong start to his Rangers reign continued with a comfortable 2-0 win at Livingston on Sunday. The Belgian has now presided over six wins and a spirited draw away to Sparta Prague in his seven matches in charge.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the win in West Lothian was the lively display of 20-year-old winger Ross McCausland, who earned his first start after six previous appearances as a substitute.

The Northern Irish youngster went close with an early attempt, won a penalty and appeared unfortunate to have a ferocious strike ruled out after team-mate Abdallah Sima was harshly penalised in the build-up.

Relief for under-fire Steven Naismith

This international break could have been extremely grim for Hearts and Steven Naismith if Saturday’s trip to Motherwell had not gone as smoothly as it did.

The Jambos boss was coming under heavy pressure after a run of one win in five matches and a generally underwhelming start to the campaign but Saturday’s impressive 2-1 win at Fir Park has served as a timely boost for the embattled manager.

Supporters were encouraged by the display and Hearts now sit within two points of third place. With a more favourable run of fixtures to come after the break, Naismith has given himself a chance to generate some winter momentum.

St Mirren dumped in Dundee

Stephen Robinson’s Saints side started the season in impressive style, moving up to third place in the table behind the Old Firm.

There were signs of a wobble before the Paisley side travelled to Tayside – one win in six in all competitions. However, there was little indication of a collapse on Tayside.

The Buddies found themselves two down at the interval with the loss of another double after the break. Robinson spoke after the game of a reset, as his side are now just two points ahead of Hearts.

Graham Carey finds a little positivity amid personal troubles

St Johnstone fans and the wider football community this week gave their support to Carey and his wife, Rachel Borthwick, who is facing up to another cancer battle.

After a 2-2 draw at home to Motherwell on Tuesday night in Craig Levein’s first game as Saints boss, the Perth side hosted fellow strugglers Ross County on Saturday.

A stunning strike by Carey in the 71st minute of a tight contest kept the three points in Perth and took St Johnstone off the bottom of the table and ultimately above Livingston and the Staggies.

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