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Rangers hold on to hope of a Europa League semi-final despite suffering a 1-0 defeat to Braga

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Rangers endured their share of rocky moments in this striking stadium, carved into the old Monte do Castro quarry high above Braga.

Ultimately, though, they departed with hope of further Europa League progression still intact. They will have to dig it out at Ibrox next Thursday. That’s for sure. But the opportunity to reach the semi-finals is there.

Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side did not play well in northern Portugal. The Europa League anthem often has a transformative effect on this team but they found none of the swagger seen in those memorable successes over Borussia Dortmund and Red Star Belgrade.

Rangers suffered a 1-0 defeat in the first leg of their quarter final against Braga

Rangers suffered a 1-0 defeat in the first leg of their quarter final against Braga

Abel Ruiz (centre) opened the scoring for the home side five minuted before the break

Abel Ruiz (centre) opened the scoring for the home side five minuted before the break

Instead, the defensive lapses witnessed in last Sunday’s deeply damaging Old Firm defeat returned to help settle the first-leg outcome. A dismal error from Leon Balogun preceded Abel Ruiz’s 40th minute goal.

Braga had earlier been denied by VAR and struck a post, yet the hosts did not seem overly keen on pushing for more after the break. They seemed to think a slender advantage will be enough to take to Glasgow. It’s up to Rangers to prove them wrong.

To do so, they will need to find far more incision that witnessed here. There were only brief flickers of concern for Braga goalkeeper Matheus. Watching on, it was impossible not to acutely feel the absence of Alfredo Morelos.

Leon Balogun (right) struggled to scramble the ball clear from around their penalty area

Leon Balogun (right) struggled to scramble the ball clear from around their penalty area

Braga goalkeeper Matheus was forced to deal with a few flickers of concern from Rangers

Braga goalkeeper Matheus was forced to deal with a few flickers of concern from Rangers

Fashion Sakala started up front. Then Kemar Roofe took over. Neither made substantial inroads. That’s a problem Van Bronckhorst must solve as a defining April continues to unfold.

Sunday’s Premiership visit to St Mirren precedes the second leg, with a Scottish Cup semi-final against Celtic following hard on its heels.

Rangers won with aplomb in Braga in February 2020, albeit only by a 1-0 margin. In truth, flipping that scoreline wasn’t the worst outcome on their return given the relative paucity of their display. They will hope a passionate home crowd can reignite their form.

Braga did not particularly look like potential Europa League winners. Fourth in Primeira Liga, Carlos Carvalhal’s side were tidy and have individual quality, particularly in captain Ricardo Horta. But they are far from an insurmountable obstacle.

For Rangers, personnel changes felt all but inevitable in the wake of last Sunday’s significant domestic setback. Van Bronckhorst duly made big calls in picking his line-up.

Rangers boss Giovani Van Bronckhorst duly made big calls in picking his line-up

Rangers boss Giovani Van Bronckhorst duly made big calls in picking his line-up

Out went Old Firm goalscorer Aaron Ramsey, with the Juventus loanee not starting the kind of high-profile assignment that was surely in his thoughts when he made the January switch from Serie A.

Out, too, went Joe Aribo. The Nigeria midfielder was a player of the year contender prior to the winter break but his form has slipped sharply since he returned from the Africa Cup of Nations.

Scott Arfield and Glen Kamara were promoted in place of Aribo and Ramsey, while the third alteration came up front. Having made precious little impact against Celtic, Roofe was dropped to the bench for the greater pace of Sakala.

Rangers were first to threaten as Arfield picked out Kent’s run into the area with a lovely pass. Matheus bolted off his line to block, sending the ball towards Sakala. The Zambian couldn’t quite sort out his feet, though, and his shot was deflected wide for a corner.

A scorer here two years ago, Kent made a lively opening. A quick step-over took two home defenders out of the game before he flighted one for Arfield. The midfielder was squeezed out as the hosts shuttled back.

Braga defender Fabiano should have become the game’s first booking when he pulled back Kamara. Instead, the dubious honour went to colleague David Carmo. Italian referee Davide Massa couldn’t fail to act when the Liverpool-linked centre-back wiped out Kamara as Rangers sought to break.

Although not filling every available seat, the home support used club-supplied clapperboards to maintain a decent level of noise. Gradually, Braga also began to find an on-field rhythm.

Warnings were served. More than once, they were fractions away from opening up the Rangers backline. By the 25th minute, they’d struck the frame of the goal.

Rodrigo Gomes got in down the left, delivering a low cross that Ruiz attacked. Goldson blocked but Ricardo Horta was quickly on the scene. The captain’s whipped shot cracked against McGregor’s left-hand post.

Rodrigo Gomes (right) got in down the left, delivering a low cross that Ruiz attacked

Rodrigo Gomes (right) got in down the left, delivering a low cross that Ruiz attacked

A minute later, Braga thought they were in front as Andre Horta’s shot deflected off James Tavernier to find to the net. As he took off in celebration, the Rangers players frantically appealed for a VAR intervention and pointed to the prone figure of Ryan Jack inside the area.

Jack had been felled by the studs of Fabiano. Called over to the touchline, Massa viewed the footage and disallowed the goal.

It proved only a temporary reprieve, yet Rangers had opportunities to make a mark of their own before falling behind.

Kent was released on the break and hared into the area. With a defender blocking the path for an immediate strike, he wriggled in vain to create space and was eventually denied.

A clearer chance fell for Sakala. His initial touch was good, knocking the ball into space and setting up a left-foot drive. From there, accuracy deserted. The ball was drilled over the bar to sum up an ineffectual first half shift.

Ryan Kent (right)  was released on the break and hared into the area for the away side

Ryan Kent (right)  was released on the break and hared into the area for the away side

Unfortunately for Van Bronckhorst, worse was soon witnessed at the other end of pitch. Rangers’ 40th minute concession was a disastrous affair.

Balogun swung and missed in his botched attempt to cut out a ball into the centre of the area. Ruiz gladly accepted the gift. Sweeping a shot beyond McGregor, the ex-Barcelona striker exacted maximum punishment.

Van Bronckhorst looked on aghast. If anything, his line-up had determined by pragmatism in a bid to offer better protection to his back four. Yet that couldn’t legislate for individuals not doing the basics.

The Dutchman decided on a change of shape for the second period. John Lundstram dropped back beside Goldson and Balogun, with Kent trying to get closer to Sakala at the apex of the team.

Ruiz gladly accepted the gift presented by Balogun's botched attempt to clear the ball

Ruiz gladly accepted the gift presented by Balogun’s botched attempt to clear the ball

Braga sought to take advantage of Calvin Bassey’s positional wandering by switching long passes into the space behind the left-back. Yan Couto sensed a chance to cause havoc with his overlapping runs down the right. Rangers still looked edgy.

Van Bronckhorst acted again after 62 minutes by making a triple substitution. Off came Balogun, Sakala and Jack, who looked to have been a little restricted ever since Fabiano’s challenge. On came Borna Barisic, Roofe and Aribo, with Bassey shifting infield to become a centre-back.

The hope was of a spark to ignite the collective performance. Braga weren’t exactly dominating.

Goldson glanced a header wide from a James Tavernier corner before McGregor, making his 100th European appearance for Rangers, denied Andre Horta’s long-range strike. It may yet prove critical.

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