Analysis of this game must always come with context of Rangers playing the second half with 10 men. Villarreal will be upset at departing with just a point, thereby not seizing on the opportunity given to them by Daniel Candeias’s dismissal. Their territorial dominance ultimately amounted to very little so Steven Gerrard retains a live hope of taking Rangers to the Europa League’s knockout phase in this, his first season as a manager. What Rangers lacked in quality, they made up for with belligerence.
“It was a heroic night, I am so proud of the players,” said Gerrard. “It would have been very cruel if we didn’t take a point.”
Rangers’ exploits have required considerable energy if nothing else. This marked their 13th game in the Europa League this season, partly the consequence of an impressively negotiated qualifying campaign. Gerrard insisted before kick-off that being in with a chance of progression from Group G represented better than onlookers would have thought possible. Using this logic, Gerrard is right to be even more bullish now. Curiously, all four teams in this section still have a chance to qualify.
“The players have set up a fantastic opportunity,” said Gerrard of the last game against Rapid Vienna on 13 December, where a win would take Rangers through.
Rangers came within a poor shot of being afforded the perfect start. Scott Arfield had more time than he realised from 12 yards, with the former Burnley midfielder finding the hands of Andrés Fernández rather than finding the net.
The visitors’ response was immediate; Carlos Bacca narrowly failed to connect with a deflected cross from Karl Toko Ekambi when only the slightest of touches would have beaten Allan McGregor.
Villarreal’s propensity to pass their way into trouble was a first-half theme. One of their centre backs, Álvaro, was guilty of this to such a glaring extent it was legitimate to ask what had happened to him between leaving Spain and touching down in Glasgow. Rangers’ own shortcomings in possession, albeit nowhere near as stark, rendered the opening 45 minutes ghoulishly entertaining.
Connor Goldson’s scooping of the ball over the bar on the half-hour proved the closest Rangers came to breaking the deadlock. A terrific McGregor save from the marauding Ekambi within a minute of that chance was an opportunity the visitors hoped they would not rue passing up.
Ekambi was spectacularly denied by the same man before the interval, this time after Jon Flanagan had squared the ball straight to the forward. McGregor will take some beating as Scotland’s player of the season.
The closing seconds of an increasingly ill-tempered first period saw Rangers reduced to 10 men. Candeias received a second yellow card for his part in a foul – Alfredo Morelos was also involved – on Santiago Cáseres. That a supporter entered the field during the ensuing melee will inevitably afford Rangers unwanted Uefa attention. “Daniel feels hard done by,” said Gerrard.
Given his existing caution, Candeias would have better advised staying away from the incident that triggered his early exit.
Villarreal’s numerical advantage was one they were keen to press home. That much was demonstrated during the second half’s early exchanges. McGregor batted away a long-range effort from Mario Gaspar and the flow of traffic rather suggested Rangers would be relying on their keeper to a significant extent.
Gerrard’s hope could be derived from the lack of conviction as demonstrated by the La Liga side. The point was not lost on his opposite number, Javier Calleja, who introduced Santi Cazorla from among his substitutes. Gerard Moreno also appeared as Calleja sought to spice up a timid attack.
Salvation – oh-so unlikely salvation – almost arrived for Rangers via Glenn Middleton, who was correctly adjudged to be offside when turning a loose ball home. Boosted by this attack, Rangers tried again via the substitute Kyle Lafferty, whose shot was tipped over.
Villarreal returned to huff and puff mode; McGregor would not be beaten. A tired, occasionally despairing Rangers, clung on for tangible reward. On the grounds of attitude alone, they deserved that.