Rangers boost knockout hopes with Europa League win over Sparta Prague
Danilo and Todd Cantwell were on target.
Rangers moved clear into second place in Europa League Group C with what turned out to be a nervy 2-1 win over Sparta Prague at Ibrox.
The two sides fought out a goalless draw in the Czech Republic last month but it took only 11 minutes for Brazilian striker Danilo to get the breakthrough before midfielder Todd Cantwell added a second in the 20th minute.
The visitors smartened up after the break however, with substitute Lukas Haraslin reducing the deficit in the 77th minute and although Danilo soon had the ball in the net again it was ruled out after VAR check for a foul and in the end the home players and fans were glad to hear the final whistle.
Philippe Clement has now gone six games unbeaten since taking over as Light Blues boss and incremental improvement is clear but they were holding on at the end
Real Betis have nine points, Rangers have seven, Sparta Prague have four and Aris Limassol just three.
Rangers host Aris Limassol later in the month before concluding their campaign next month with a trip to Spain to face Real Betis and there is plenty still at stake.
The home side were buoyed by their commanding 3-1 Viaplay Cup semi-final win over Hearts on Sunday and Clement made one change with centre-back Ben Davies in for Leon Balogun, who, along with left-back Ridvan Yilmaz, was not included in the European squad by former boss Michael Beale.
Rangers’ first chance came in the fifth minute when a cut-back from Cantwell just missed the sliding Danilo, wearing a mask again to protect a cheekbone injury.
However, the Gers striker soon took advantage of a horror mistake by the visitors, intercepting a lazy backpass from defender James Gomez before racing through to slip the ball past keeper Peter Vindahl for his third goal in four games.
The Czech side were rattled and Vindahl soon had to make a save from a spectacular Cantwell effort.
At the other end, Rangers keeper Jack Butland tipped a header from Gomez over the bar for another corner which came to nothing, before Rangers stretched the lead.
Danilo took possession deep in the visitors’ half, moved the ball onto the right-hand side for Cantwell who turned back inside Gomez before bending a drive into the far corner for his first goal of the season and once again the home fans were celebrating.
Sparta players came together in an impromptu ring to try to sort things out but it got no better.
In the 27th minute a poor clearance from Sparta captain Asger Sorensen from an Abdallah Sima cross ended at the feet of Danilo and he smashed the outside of the post with a drive from 16 yards and 10 minutes later skipper James Tavernier came close with a 25-yard free-kick.
Gomez was having a torrid night and his slip allowed Cantwell to run clear on to a Connor Goldson pass but his unconvincing shot was blocked by the foot of Vindahl.
There was no surprise when Gomez failed to emerge for the second half with Victor Olatunji also staying inside as Qazim Laci and Tomas Wiesner came on for Czech side who began to push Rangers back for the first time, with Laci sending a header past the post just after the hour mark.
Clement’s side could not get going and in the 69th minute Cantwell made way for young attacker Ross McCausland to give a much-needed energy boost to the Govan side.
Still Sparta had the upper hand and Haraslin just missed the target with a shot into the ground following a corner.
Vindahl made saves from McCausland and midfielder Ryan Jack as Rangers tried to reassert themselves but they found themselves under real pressure when Haraslin played a one-two with Angelo Preciado and swept the ball into the net from 10 yards.
Danilo looked like he had immediately restored Rangers’ two-goal lead but Italian referee David Massa checked his pitch side monitor and decided that the Gers attacker had tripped Serensen to get his chance.
Butland made a fine save from Haraslin’s powerful drive as Rangers defended desperately for a valuable three points which looked like being a lot easier earned at the interval.