Rangers' decade of work ruined as Champions League dream shattered
It took Rangers a decade of pain and sweat to earn another shot at Champions League glory.
It took them just a few minutes of defensive madness to blow their chance of a return to the group stage of Europe’s elite club competition.
This third qualifying round exit at the hands of Malmo will sting Steven Gerrard and his players for some time to come.
The dismay of the elimination will also reverberate around the boardroom as the Ibrox club’s hierarchy reflect on the missed opportunity of financial rewards of around £30 million.
Rangers still have a shot at a fourth consecutive appearance in the Europa League group stage but that is of scant consolation in the short term.
Malmo’s hex on Scottish clubs continued, despite being reduced to 10 men by Bonke Innocent’s sending-off on the stroke of half-time.
Two goals inside four minutes early in the second half from Antonio Colak wiped out the first half opener from Alfredo Morelos which looked to have given Rangers the momentum they needed in the tie.
It was all too similar to the two goals they conceded at the start of the first half in Malmo last week and they were ultimately unable to grab the lifeline Steven Davis’ stoppage time strike had provided that night.
The Rangers supporters had waited 515 days for the opportunity to fill Ibrox again and the sound they created left no-one in any doubt that this was an occasion they were determined to savour to the full. They played their part, as Gerrard had requested, but their team were found wanting.
It was ear-splitting stuff, a maelstrom of noise and explosion of human joy at once again being permitted the communal experience of backing their team.
It seemed to energise Gerrard’s players at the start, none more so than Morelos who so often thrives on these European nights.
The striker was a constant thorn in Malmo’s side, making his presence felt as early as the second minute when he chased what looked like a lost cause to keep the ball in play down the right. His cutback was missed by Ryan Kent but broke to Joe Aribo whose shot was deflected just wide.
The tone Gerrard wanted had been set. Feeding off the roar from all four stands, Rangers moved the ball quickly and accurately in pursuit of the opening goal they needed to level the tie on aggregate.
It arrived in the 19th minute from a free-kick which Borna Barisic, dallying in possession, was perhaps fortunate to get when challenged by Malmo captain Anders Christiansen.
The Croatian full-back took it quickly, playing it to Kent on the left. His inswinging cross caused panic in the visitors’ defence and when the ball found its way to the far post, Morelos was able to bundle it home from almost on the goal line.
It was his 24th European goal for Rangers, his first in the Champions League, and none of the previous 23 have been greeted with the utter bedlam it prompted inside the stadium.
Morelos was at the heart of everything for Rangers and he threatened again 10 minutes later, bustling his way into the penalty area but unable to get clean enough purchase on his shot to trouble Malmo goalkeeper Johan Dahlin.
It was a level of intensity from Rangers which was going to be difficult to sustain and Malmo steadily secured a foothold in proceedings.
An unusually nervy error from Allan McGregor saw him earn a yellow card and concede a dangerous free-kick as he handled the ball just outside his penalty area.
Malmo were unable to make the most of the set piece but it sparked a spell of pressure from the Swedish champions which caused the first signs of anxiety among the crowd.
Colak might have done better than head over from a Jo Inge Berget cross, then McGregor had to be alert to hold a low shot from Veljko Birmancevic who had surged into the box.
Malmo were finishing the first half in the ascendancy but the balance appeared to swing crucially in Rangers’ favour with the dismissal of Innocent.
The Nigerian midfielder had been booked for a foul on Morelos in the 41st minute and as the game went into stoppage time before the break, he received a second yellow card for a challenge on Connor Goldson deemed dangerous by Slovenian referee Slavko Vincic.
It seemed harsh and was protested vigorously by the Malmo players and their coach Jon Dahl Tomasson as the teams left the field for the interval.
Perhaps stoked up by that sense of injustice, Malmo came flying out of the traps at the start of the second half and left Rangers reeling with Colak’s two goals in the space of five minutes.
The striker’s first was an outstanding finish as he collected a clever reverse pass from Birmancevic to guide a low shot beyond McGregor. His second was equally well taken but a defensive calamity for Rangers as he received the ball from a throw-in and had all the time he needed to turn and place a low shot past the helpless McGregor.
Gerrards men needed two goals just to force extra-time and it never looked likely. Substitute Fashion Sakala came close on a couple of occasions but Malmo held firm. Rangers have now lost three consecutive games for the first time in six years in a calamitous start to the season few could have envisaged.
Rangers (4-3-3): McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Balogun, Barisic; Arfield (Hagi 69), Davis, Aribo; Wright (Sakala 63), Morelos, Kent. Subs not used: McCrorie, Hogarth, Bassey, Lundstram, Helander, Itten, Simpson, Patterson, Kelly.
Malmo (4-4-2): Dahlin, Lewicki, Ahmedhodzic, Nielsen, Moisander; Birmancevic (Rakip 74), Innocent, Christiansen, Rieks; Colak (Abubakari 90+1), Berget (Beijmo 83). Subs not used: Ellborg, Johansson, Larsson, Gwargis, Nalic, Eile, Bjorkvist, Nanasi.