There was no redemption for Rangers as their Europa League campaign was finally ended by a 1-0 defeat against Bayer Leverkusen.
Steven Gerrard’s team were made to wait five months for another shot at the German side but the damage done in their 3-1 first-leg defeat at Ibrox almost 150 days ago proved to be too much to recover.
Peter Bosz’s impressive Bundesliga side now move into the quarter-final one-off with Internazionale in nearby Düsseldorf on Monday after Moussa Diaby’s early second-half goal sealed a 4-1 aggregate triumph.
Gerrard would have loved to have had the option of spicing up his lineup with the summer recruits Leon Balogun, Kemar Roofe and Cedric Itten but all three were ineligible. Instead he opted to give Brandon Barker a chance following an impressive pre-season campaign, while Filip Helander’s fitness levels were also put to the test as the defender came in for the first time since injuring a foot in the Betfred Cup final in December.
Rangers’ gameplan was clear: fall back into the trusty defensive shape which has served them so well through their previous 17 games of this 13-month European campaign before using Barker and Ryan Kent’s pace to spring on the counter.
They had four early chances to test that ploy but on each occasion a final pass let them down. They had to be ruthless if they were to grab the three away goals required to overturn the tie but they went in at half-time just grateful that the slick home side had been in a forgiving mood.
Helander failed to deal with a cross from Lars Bender on 16 minutes and the £70m-rated Chelsea target Kai Havertz almost made the Swede pay as he rattled a first-time shot off Allan McGregor’s bar.
Havertz’s quality was clear as he glided across the pitch but he should have scored seven minutes later as Exequiel Palacios sent the playmaker racing through a static defence, only for the 21-year-old to tug wide.
Helander, looking strong despite eight months out, was smarter on his feet two minutes before the interval as he leapt in to block at Florian Wirtz’s feet after Leverkusen had hit Rangers on a lightning quick counterattack.
With sweltering 32C heat at kick-off, it had been a taxing first 45 minutes for the Glasgow club as Leverkusen dominated with 70% possession. And it took the home side only six minutes to exploit fatigue in the Rangers ranks as Charles Aránguiz spotted Diaby’s run beyond James Tavernier. The French Under-21 winger did the rest, chesting down before rifling into McGregor’s net.
The Rangers goalkeeper remained resilient, kicking away another close-range Havertz attempt while Connor Goldson was denied a lifeline for Gerrard’s side when his header from a Borna Barisic free-kick was booted off the line by Edmond Tapsoba.
If this was to be the last time Alfredo Morelos – still the subject of speculation linking him with Lille – was seen in a Rangers jersey, it was a sorry ending. The Colombian made way for Greg Stewart with quarter of an hour left following a thoroughly ineffective display which just about summed up his 2020 so far. The full-time whistle brought the curtain down on a campaign from which Rangers can still take huge pride after battling through to the last 16 from the first round of qualifiers.
“I think Alfredo is professional enough to block the noise out and focus,” Gerrad said afterwards. “He hasn’t had the best of games tonight but we haven’t as a team either and there’s certainly no blame been pointed at anyone. We’ve given it our best shot and unfortunately we’ve fallen short. We all have to improve – but Alfredo needs to remain focused. Everyone knows he’s had his head turned, for sure. There’s no denying that.
“We just move forward. My focus is on the team and the players who want to be here. My focus is certainly now on St Mirren [on Sunday]. If a bid comes, and I’ll say it again, that the board like and are interested in, and the player tells me face to face that he wants to go, then we’ll see what happens.”
But Gerrard will not have to wait long to see his team back testing themselves in Europa League action again, with Rangers due to enter the new season’s qualifiers on 17 September.