Rock solid in this stadium carved into an old quarry, Rangers marched the Europa League in the last 16 with a margin of victory that only flattered their previously imperious hosts.
This was near a textbook road execution by Steven Gerrard’s side. In stark contrast to their misery in the interior, here they were a perfect image of tactical discipline and counterattack against the top scorers of the competition.
No team had eliminated Braga in one of their 11 previous Europa League games.
Rangers players celebrate after taking on a crucial goal to take charge of Braga
Ryan Kent is embraced by Florian Kamberi after breaking the deadlock on Wednesday evening
Kent drives away after his crucial goal on the hour proved the difference
Kent quietly finds the bottom corner after he has been sent clean for the opening goal
Gerrard’s game plan produced an excellent result that is perhaps his best in an impressive European record of 30 games.
Braga: Magalhaes, Viana, Silva (Galeno 53), Carmo (Ruiz 65), Esgaio, Fransergio, Joao Palhinha (Novais 45), Sequeira, Trincao, Horta, Paulinho
Subs not used: Vitor Tormena, Tiago Sa, Andre Horta, Rui Fonte
booked: Carmo, Esgaio
Rangers: McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Edmundson, Barisic, Arfield, Davis, Jack, Hagi (Aribo 72), Kamberi (Ojo 78), Kent
Subs not used: Foderingham, Halliday, Kamara, Katic, Stewart
Referee: Andreas Ekberg
Since the 2010-11 season, the Ibrox club has progressed so far in the continental competition. They can now look forward to Friday’s draw and the exciting opportunities it can offer.
Ryan Kent’s beautifully taken second half winner made progress in Northern Portugal and was the least-earned Rangers.
At that time they had seen an Ianis Hagi penalty saved and a few chances slipping away. The fear during the break was that debauchery was punished, but a doubled effort ensured that in the best possible way a fantastic return of the first leg was built.
There were times when they had to defend hard. But a back-four with George Edmundson for the lost Niko Katic came in very well.
Again, the difference with Sunday’s 2-2 draw with St Johnstone was extraordinary.
Gerrard hopes that self-confidence can give a boost in the Scottish Cup quarter-final against Hearts on Saturday, while striving for what increasingly appears to be their last chance for silverware in Scotland. Following this success would breathe new life into an earlier marking season.
Matheus Magalhaes dives to his right to refuse Ianis Hagi from the penalty spot
The Braga goalkeeper is congratulated by teammates after refusing Rangers an out-goal
Gerrard’s call to dump Katic was huge, though not entirely unexpected. The confidence of the Croat looked fragmented when he produced a buggy show in Perth.
While praising Katic’s attitude at Tuesday’s press conference, Gerrard had been reluctant about the likelihood of staying with Connor Goldson. The decision was instead to give Edmundson a first European appearance since a 2-0 win over Progres Niederkorn far back in July.
What a night this was for the young Englishman. Nerves were to be expected. They undoubtedly doubled when he gave the ball to Fransergio with his very first involvement.
Fortunately, the Brazilian midfielder was unable to choose a sufficiently accurate passing ball to expose the error.
Braga’s ground staff had become heavy with the sprinklers just before the teams came up, making the surface somewhat slippery. Edmundson was one of the various Rangers players who lost their early doors. Finding calm was not immediately. But when it arrived, it should have led to a ninth minute lead.
A slippery one-two between Scott Arfield and Kent made sure the first one could burst behind Braga’s persistently high line of defense. Arfield might have had to take the shot himself when he entered the 18-yard box, but chose to dab it on to the supporting Kamberi. His low ride from a corner was thwarted by home keeper Matheus.
Ryan Jack van Rangers is fighting for possession with Jorag Paulinha of Braga in the first half
Braga sends Paulinho for the ball with Rangers midfielder Steven Davis
David Carno van Braga lands in an attempt to win the ball from Ianis Hagi van Rangers
Rangers goalkeeper Allan McGregor is completely moving to tilt the ball over the bar
Incredibly, an even better chance was rejected ten minutes later. Gerrard could hardly have wished for two better goals with less than a quarter of the match played. To see that neither was taken, his heart must have sunk.
The creation of this was all about Hagi. Hero of the first leg, the Romanian forced a foul by Raul Silva before skipping David Carmo to enter the penalty area. He pulled the ball back for Kent, but the winger failed to hit the goal from 12 meters and pulled his shot wide out of Matheus’s right post.
Braga had made a call to companies to let employees leave early and kick off the 5:00 PM. Those who answered the call got heart flaps from the defense of their team. They had to wait until the 26th minute for real excitement at the other end.
An excellent, spirited cross from left behind Nuno Sequeira chose Paulinho for a header over the crossbar from Allan McGregor. Again, the veteran proved his worth on the continental stage.
That was as scary as it was for the Ibrox outfit before the break. Following Gerrards instructions was to provide control and safety. The only thing missing was a goal.
Braga goalkeeper Matehus Magalhaes jumps high and claims the ball for Davis van Rangers
Ianis Hagi walks away from the Braga defenders while the visitors chase the opening goal
Exactly during the break a penalty offered the perfect window to tackle that and to eradicate the memory of those previous misses. But Rangers are cursed of the place this season.
Raul Silva acted when he wanted to clear a corner of Kent, with Swedish referee Andreas Ekberg confirming the price after a VAR check.
Hagi stepped up, but Matheus suspected the right way and raised a strong hand to ward off. It was a great save, but also the sixth penalty from 10 Gerrards side missed this period. Hagi is the fourth different player to fail.
The tie should have been done and dusted by the break. Instead, the tension remained in the second period. Braga coach Ruben Amorim first moved with a change, with Joao Palhinha being replaced by Joao Novais in central midfield. The unconvincing Raul Silva soon afterwards succumbed to an injury to bring Galeno into battle.
Yet the chances of Rangers disappeared. Ten minutes after the restart, Kamberi and Steven Davis exchanged passes to allow the striker to cross over to the nearby post. This was at an uncomfortable height for Kent as he hit the top.
He would have his moment soon. With 61 minutes on the clock, Kent delivered the long-awaited, great-looking incision.
Ryan Kent is on the ground after missing a chance to put Rangers ahead in Portugal
Hagi’s sweeping ball over the top sent him through the left inner channel. There was still plenty to do even after avoiding Sequeira’s attempt to cover up, but the former Liverpool player did it with confidence. As Matheus progressed, Kent produced a brilliant, angular finish that bounced in the far post.
A response must always be resisted. Rangers did it admirably, even if there was a bit of luck when Horta’s downward header of a Trincao cross cut off the outside of McGregor’s left post.
The notable Arfield was then sidelined when he tapped after a Goldson header hit upright before substitute Sheyi Ojo saw a long-distance ride tipped by Matheus.
Rangers earned a second goal. However, this was not a night for complaints. Simply very satisfied with a task that has been performed professionally.