Four hours before Rangers stepped into a cauldron of noise in Braga, Alfredo Morelos sent a tweet that turned out to be an accurate portent of what his team-mates would face in the Europa League quarter-final.
“Be brave and patient,” the Colombia striker told his 125,000 followers, referring to his injury. “Sometimes you have to overcome certain tests in order to achieve great blessings. We will come back stronger.”
It’s a message that 10,000 Rangers fans will be holding dear upon their return from Portugal.
A 1-0 defeat was meted out in Braga, leaving the Portuguese favourites to reach the semi-finals. For the first three quarters of the match at the breathtaking Municipal Stadium, the reigning Scottish champions were second best, with a late rally offering hope the team has more in them for the return at Ibrox next week.
But what chance do Rangers have of meeting either Atalanta or RB Leipzig in the last four?
What do the stats say?
Right, let’s get these out the way.
Statistics can, of course, be manipulated and, in many respects, the figures from Thursday’s defeat in Braga suggest Rangers were well in the game.
Their expected goals (XG) tally was marginally higher, they had more shots in the box, more possession and passes with a greater pass accuracy, not to mention more crosses and corners.
Yet, with that knowledge, it’s all the more frustrating for the Rangers supporters that they didn’t even muster a shot on target, let alone a goal. It was the first time in almost 13 years in a European match proper that the Ibrox side had failed to test a goalkeeper.
Morelos has only scored once in his last nine games – in the 3-0 win over Red Star Belgrade in the previous round – but the way he draws defenders, wins fouls, works an entire defence and brings people into play have been key to Rangers’ success in Europe.
Against Braga, with Ryan Kent and Scott Arfield behind, Fashion Sakala struggled to have the same impact. One shot was snatched at in the first half, when a bit of composure could have punished the hosts. In total, Sakala had 20 touches, only four in the opposition box, with two shots off target.
Winger Kent, the matchwinner the last time Rangers took to the field here, was nullified after early promise with only two entries into the final third and no shots, while right-back James Tavernier’s 13 deliveries arrived without any end product.
“A big part of Rangers’ game is getting crosses into the box,” former Rangers defender Richard Foster told BBC Radio Scotland. “Tonight, there were a lot of opportunities and they seemed to pass it up. How many short corners did they play? Tavernier, with his quality, should put the ball in the box.”
At the back, Rangers appeared shaky in the first half. That’s now just one away clean sheet in their last 10 European games, although they won 11 tackles to Braga’s three and made more than double the number of interceptions. Again, signs of how much pressure they were under for the first hour?
Signs of hope for second leg?
The main positive is there is still only one goal in the tie. The Portuguese celebrated boldly at full-time with their supporters, but there is a long way to go yet.
Another plus is how Rangers finished the game. They struggled for fluidity immediately after the restart but began to find their groove when Kemar Roofe and others were introduced. Could the striker be someone who is called upon to start next week?
“We know that he [Morelos] is out for the remainder of the season, so we have to do it in another way,” manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst told BT Sport. “We have a big squad, maybe other qualities than Morelos, but we have to go with the squad we have now.”
Rangers will also fancy their chances in front of a home crowd. At the Municipal Stadium in Braga, the locals were sensational, but a rocking Ibrox brings a different dimension to Rangers’ play. Particularly in Europe.
In the Europa League this season, Lyon are the only team to beat Rangers in Govan. Borussia Dortmund held them to a draw, but every other team from Alashkert onwards has been defeated. There are also four clean sheets in there, along with three games with a winning margin big enough to turn this tie around.
“I don’t think it’ll be the same game – I think we can create more chances than we did here,” midfielder Arfield told BT Sport. “It was always going to be a difficult game.
“But we’re still in this tie. It’s only half-time and we’re confident we can get the job done.”
While Arfield admitted that Morelos “is a big player for us”, he stressed that “it’s up to other players to come in and take their chances”.
“Fashion worked tirelessly tonight without any clear-cut chances,” he added. “Kemar last season showed what a fantastic player he is. It’s not just about Alfredo. There’s no point about talking him because he can’t help us right now – we need to start scoring.
“There’s no doom and gloom about this, none whatsoever. We’ve not won the game, we wanted to, but we’ve set it up for a cracker next week.”
‘Braga were average… that says everything’ – analysis
Former Rangers striker Mark Hateley on BBC Radio Scotland’s Sportsound
For me, it was a very poor game. A difficult game to get enthused with.
Rangers are expected to be deep in all competitions. Six of these players started this same figure two years ago, they’ve got the experience. They know what to expect.
It’s a disappointment, but 1-0 is a good result. Rangers struggled [in the number nine slot] badly tonight.
We were looking at the game thinking, ‘this is an average side’. Individually, they’ve got some decent players, but as a playing side, I thought they were average tonight. That says everything about Rangers’ performance.
Former Rangers striker Rory Loy on Sportsound
Having seen Braga play tonight, I think a 1-0 defeat is a real disappointment. I understand the logic, but if Rangers don’t go through, they’ll think they could have done a lot more.
How many times did they try something that didn’t need to be tried? That old saying, don’t go into the dressing room with any regrets? I think there will be some on that plane.
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