It just had to be him. Alfredo Morelos simply would not be denied. After missing a prime chance in Warsaw, and again in the first half here, the Colombian picked the perfect moment to find accuracy and propel Rangers into the Europa League group stage.
The digital display for six added minutes had not long gone up when Jordan Jones flighted a cross into the penalty area. Morelos connected perfectly with his head and Ibrox was gripped by bedlam.
Steven Gerrard hared out of his technical area, partly in celebration and partly to try and restore calm to a group of players piling on top of each other in delight. There was still a painful period of nerve-flaying tension to endure before Slovenian referee Slavko Vincic sounded the final whistle and allowed the joy to truly be released.
Alfredo Morelos stepped up when it counted to send Rangers to Europa League group stages
The Colombian scored in stoppage time to the delight of home fans to seal Rangers’ fate
Steven Gerrard was delighted at full-time after seeing Morelos step up to secure a big win
Rangers: McGregor, Barisic, Katic, Goldson, Tavernier, Arfield (Jones 72), Jack, Davis, Aribo, Morelos, Ojo (Kamara 90+5).
Subs not used: Foderingham, Helander, Defoe, Flanagan, Stewart.
Booked: Barisic, Tavernier, Katic, Jones
Goals: Morelos (90+1)
Legia Warsaw: Majecki, Stolarski (Nagy 73), Lewczuk, Jedrzejczyk, Luis Rocha, Andre Martins, Cafu, Vesovic, Gvilia, Luquinhas, Kulenovic (Niezgoda).
Subs not used: Cierzniak, Jodlowiec, Wieteska, Antolic, Carlitos.
Booked: Stolarski, Lewczuk
Referee: Slavko Vincic (Slovenia)
Gerrard bounced in delight on the pitch, clenching fists towards the crowd, before a scuffle broke out between players from both sides as Legia swallowed the bitter pill of elimination after an epic 96 minutes.
For Rangers, though, there was only happiness. A second successive season of qualification – earning up to £10 million all in – could a significant milestone in the longer-term rebuilding of this club.
Of course, events off the field may yet impact on that. With 3,000 seats left empty last night as an initial UEFA sanction, a second charge relating to sectarian singing in Warsaw last week will be considered in Nyon today.
That could mean more empty seats or even a ground closure when the group stage gets underway next month. Rangers have already taken pre-emptive action by announcing they will not take tickets for their next game. Today’s draw could potentially line up a trip to, among others, Manchester United, Arsenal, Sevilla or Roma.
A sea of smoke descended over the Glasgow stadium due to flares set off in the away end
Mercifully, this instalment appeared at first listening to pass without any further repeat of bigoted chanting.
In terms of the actual football, Gerrard’s men will take huge lift going into Sunday’s seismic Old Firm encounter. Recording another victory on home turf would frank all the early optimism that has swirled around their season.
They had to dig deep to ensure no dark cloud followed them into the derby. Legia were no pushovers, but Morelos finally found the means topple them.
Backed by 1,000 noisy followers, including ex-Celtic goalkeeper Artur Boruc, the Poles arrived in Glasgow harbouring understandable belief that a stalemate on home territory had been far from a disastrous result.
You might have thought the delicate balance of the tie would lead to a tense opening. A tentative period of two teams probing for weaknesses. Gerrard himself had predicted a ‘tight, tight’ affair.
The first half scoreline bore that out, but the early flow of play told a different tale. Enough chances arrived in the opening ten minutes alone to alter the narrative. And Rangers really should have gone in front.
First, though, Legia posed a threat of their own inside 90 seconds. When Scott Arfield’s cross was blocked, the Poles swept downfield to set up striker Sandro Kulenovic for an angled drive solidly grasped by Allan McGregor. It was a quick warning of the need to not over-commit.
With Sheyi Ojo passing a fitness test, Gerrard’s only real selection dilemma came at left-back – where Borna Barisic was given the nod ahead of Jon Flanagan. The Croatia international was presumably buoyed by his match-winning free-kick against St Mirren but still looked a little nervous in possession at times. Not that it affected too much of his side’s forward momentum.
Referee Vincic allowed an advantage when Morelos was bumped to the turf, enabling Ojo to take over. The Liverpool loanee smacked a low drive just wide of target.
Legia Warsaw fans made their presence felt on Thursday night as stewards tried to stop them
That was only the prelude, however, to a truly prime opening. One that left Morelos wondering how he missed.
Ryan Jack was the creator, calmly working space for himself on the right flank before delivering a pristine cross. It was perfectly measured for Morelos, six yards out, but he sent his header the wrong side of Radoslaw Majecki’s right-hand post.
The error seemed to linger with the Colombian. For the next ten minutes, his first touch was posted missing. Moves broke down at his feet. Ibrox chanted supportively at first, before grumbles of frustration also began to emerge.
Some confidence was restored by the time Morelos ignored a surging run from Ojo to go at Legia’s centre-backs himself. Even so, his eventual strike was comfortably held by Majecki.
From there, the visitors began to pose more significant danger. Two very presentable chances were fashioned in the final 11 minutes of the half as Gerrard’s side showed little signs of fragility.
Luquinhas had been Legia’s first leg dangerman and the Brazilian winger once more set about trying to upset the Ibrox defence. His quick feet and tenacity beat James Tavernier all ends up before he sidestepped Connor Goldson. Thankfully for Rangers, his connection on a low shot was not perfect and McGregor could cling on.
Then, in added time, a deep corner from Valerian Gvilia eluded the Ibrox backline. Midfielder Cafu got his head on it, but without any accuracy. His anguished reaction said it all.
Gerrard had inspired some big second half displays before in his time managing Rangers in Europe. He needed another one here. Anxiety would become the dominant emotion the longer the stalemate persisted.
Tempers frayed late on at Ibrox as both sides pushed to secure their place in the group stages
Tavernier sought to prevent that with a trademark charge down the right. The ball dropped for Morelos but, after a fractional delay in striking, his effort was expertly blocked on the slide by Igor Lewczuk. Another opportunity had slipped away.
Aleksandar Vukovic moved first with an alteration, replacing the unconvincing Kulenovic with Jaroslaw Niezgoda. Almost immediately, the substitute got away from Connor Goldson to force a corner that caused a spell of chaos within the Rangers area when delivered by Gvilia.
Barisic had suffered a head knock earlier in the half and made way for Flanagan in the 64th minute to use up Gerrard’s first change. Finding the right combination at the other end of the pitch was, however, becoming a priority.
Jones for Scott Arfield was the call in that respect, but only after an Ojo curler was pushed out and Morelos had gone close with a smart attempt across the face of goal.
A series of red flares lit by the Legia fans – which will bring inevitable UEFA action upon their club – then forced the game to be halted as smoke reduced visibility inside the stadium. After a minute, and with the fog not quite cleared, it was back to the frantic search for a winner. Thankfully for Rangers, after an end-to-end finale, it was Morelos who found it.