The nature of RB Leipzig celebrations as Angeliño cracked home a goal not at all in keeping with an instantly forgettable game – what is it they say about semi-finals? – said it all. On an evening where Leipzig huffed and puffed, Rangers battled bravely to the point where they will be sore about not returning to Glasgow with parity.
The reigning Scottish champions were in a fine position for their next meeting with their Bundesliga opposition, at Ibrox, before a moment of class from the former Manchester City player. Giovanni van Bronckhorst will still be far from downbeat – a one-goal deficit is far from unassailable for Rangers – but this could and almost was so much better. The trick for Rangers next week will be to add potency to a level of commitment and discipline as was clear for all to see in Germany. Dreams of Seville remain intact.
Rangers’ starting line-up illustrated Van Bronckhorst’s desire to be versatile – with John Lundstram dropping into a back three – but simultaneously the scale of the challenge here. Alfredo Morelos and Kemar Roofe are both injured, leaving Fashion Sakala as the only out-and-out striker in the Rangers squad. Van Bronckhorst opted to leave Sakala among the substitutes with two wide players, Scott Wright and Ryan Kent, serving as Rangers’ most advanced attackers. Neither are known for their touch in front of goal.
In 16 earlier European matches of this season, Rangers had not encountered such spells without possession as in the first quarter of this match. Yet for all Leipzig’s control, they failed to create serious opportunity. Christopher Nkunku should have done better after the hosts capitalized on a Borna Barisic error and Dominik Szoboszlai rued allowing Connor Goldson to recover after a half chance appeared but Leipzig’s early play lacked cutting edge.
Doubtless boosted by this bluntness, Rangers duly enjoyed a far more coherent spell. James Tavernier, the captain, wasted a decent free-kick position moments before Goldson headed a corner over Peter Gulacsi’s crossbar. Leipzig were jolted into action; Tavernier provided a desperate block from Angeliño’s half-volley after a spell of pinball inside the Rangers penalty area. Konrad Laimer was next to threaten, with a teasing cross from the right that evaded all Leipzig attackers.
This was, however, a pretty drab opening period. Leipzig, not unreasonably, seemed to regard themselves as the superior side but without the kind of ruthless play that would rock Rangers. The visitors headed to their dressing room content that 50% of operation “keep the tie alive before leg two” had been achieved.
Trickery from Kent almost afforded Rangers a dream start to the second half. Instead, the ex-Liverpool man’s subsequent shot flew wide. Van Bronckhorst had altered Rangers’ approach during the break, with Joe Aribo now the focal point of the attack as Kent and Wright switched to wider positions. The switch was immediately effective, Tavernier seeing a shot at goal deflected for a corner. Nkunku replied, his 53rd-minute blast actually the first time Allan McGregor’s palms had been stung. This, at a point in the game when Leipzig had dominated possession by a ratio of three to one.
With 25 minutes to play, frustration from the home support was audible. No wonder; the sight of Benjamin Henrichs standing on the right flank with arms outstretched as no teammate sought the ball in a scoring position summed up Leipzig’s growing impatience. There was, perhaps, a broader anxiety, too, for a club looking to win a first European trophy since being founded in 2009. Red Bull’s heavy financial backing brings expectation.
Nkunku, so prolific in this campaign, was to endure a horror moment 20 minutes from time. The Frenchman shrugged Lundstram aside before escaping a despairing McGregor dive. With the goal gaping, Nkunku blazed wildly over from just 12 yards. Leipzig now had cause to fear it could be one of those nights.
Nkunku was profligate again with a back-post header from a terrific Angeliño cross. Leipzig appealed in vain for a penalty as Barisic clashed with Henrichs. The Germans needed something unorthodox, and it was soon to arrive.
McGregor had done well to tip a Tyler Adams shot over, with Sakala heading the resulting corner away. Enter Angeliño, who strode forward to lash a 20-yard volley through a crowd of bodies and beyond the helpless Rangers goalkeeper. Cue a group celebration in front of the home dugout. Advantage Leipzig; on this evidence, it is one they very much cherish.