Given everything in football is relative, Steven Gerrard has quickly lurched towards territory marked ‘crisis.’ Suffice to say, this was not in the script amid wild title celebrations around Ibrox in May. For the first time in his Rangers tenure, Gerrard has presided over three defeats in a row. This one, as ended Rangers’ dreams of competing in the Champions League once again, was particularly ignominious as arriving against a Malmö side which was formed of just 10 men for the entire second half. Rangers had even taken an early lead through Alfredo Morelos, before the kind of bemusing capitulation as will haunt their manager. Rangers are making catastrophic errors in defence and lack punch in attack, as now punished by Malmö – twice – and Dundee United.
Malmö must celebrate pairings with Scottish opposition. A decade ago, they also defeated Rangers on Champions League qualifying business. They did likewise to Celtic in 2015. In between, they swaggered to a 7-0 win at Hibernian. The stuff of Swede dreams.
The first Scottish football crowd of roughly 50,000 for more than 500 days formed the backdrop to this fixture. Rangers rightly revelled in title success last season but a run to the last 16 of the Europa League led to wider recognition of the work undertaken by Gerrard here. More than a decade has passed since Rangers competed in the Champions League’s group phase; financial incentives and a desire to be classed once again as among Europe’s elite clubs fuelled the desire to return.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the raucous atmosphere, the game opened at breakneck speed. Malmö forced a corner within 30 seconds but were fortunate not to find themselves behind just a minute later after Joe Aribo’s effort was deflected wide. Rangers had been slack during an attritional first leg but Steven Davis’s goal, with the last kick of the game, afforded them hope.
Morelos was to raise spirits even further. Malmö’s approach of sitting off Rangers looked curious, including because of the vulnerability within the Scottish champions’ defence. Malmö had exposed that much a week earlier. Rangers dominated much of the first half, with tangible reward coming via their Colombian striker.
Rangers were actually fortunate to win a free-kick just inside the visitors’ half after it appeared Borna Barisic was legitimately robbed of possession. The Croatian full-back fed Ryan Kent, who was left in blissful isolation to jink towards the penalty area and float a cross to the back post. Morelos miscued his header – the ball actually flew off his back – but did enough to beat Johan Dahlin. Ibrox erupted, with Malmö made to pay for their passive style.
Malmö did offer a response of sorts before the break. Antonio Colak should have done better than head wildly over the crossbar from Jo Inge Berget’s cross, before Veljko Birmancevic barely tested Allan McGregor with a low shot. Gerrard’s touchline remonstrations were telling, with the ex-Liverpool captain clearly of the view his team’s play was too frantic.
The half was to finish with a moment of controversy. Bonke Innocent, earlier booked for holding Morelos, collected a second yellow card after challenging Connor Goldson. If not the case already, momentum had firmly swung Rangers’ way. Jon Dahl Tomasson, the Malmö head coach, had complaints over Innocent’s second booking which on first view appeared legitimate.
Morelos could have edged Rangers ahead on aggregate within three minutes of the restart but shot high and wide with Dahlin out of position. Malmö were soon to punish such profligacy; and some.
Colak, a peripheral figure until this point, produced an outstanding finish after an equally impressive reverse pass from Birmancevic. McGregor, at full stretch, was rendered helpless by the Croatian.
Colak was far from done. Some appalling Rangers defending, straight from a throw in, allowed him to control the ball and cut inside both Leon Balogun and Aribo before slamming home. The 10 men celebrated wildly with their coaching staff, with good reason. Rangers found themselves in catch-up mode against a team with confidence fully restored.
Understandably, the closing stages were played in Malmö territory. Yet Tomasson’s men never looked in serious danger. For them, another memorable evening. Gerrard must scramble towards the reset button.