A record of 11 goals conceded and none scored in three games can never bode well for a Rangers manager. Nonetheless, on a curious night at Ibrox, Giovanni van Bronckhorst took heart from the competitiveness of his team against Napoli before Rangers were reduced to 10 men.
Napoli ultimately emerged as deserved winners but the whiff of controversy filled the Govan air from the moment of James Sands’s dismissal. Rangers felt wronged, as opposed to the embarrassment suffered by back-to-back 4-0 losses to Ajax and Celtic.
Wayne Rooney had notched a late winner from the penalty spot for Manchester United the last time Ibrox staged a Champions League group-stage match. Almost 12 years on, penalties defined Rangers’ return to this environment.
Allan McGregor twice denied Piotr Zielinski from 12 yards – the Polish midfielder had been ordered to retake his spot kick – before Matteo Politano made no mistake from the same position. Napoli had the platform from which they pressed home their superiority.
“Until the red card I thought we gave Napoli a really tough game,” said Van Bronckhorst. “I don’t think a 3-0 defeat reflected the difference in quality today. The manner of this defeat was clearly different to the last two.” The point was a fair one.
The death of the Queen inevitably registered more at Ibrox than at many other football grounds across the UK. Rangers’ cultural identity is intrinsically linked to Britishness and, in turn, the royal family. A large tifo display paid tribute to the Queen as the teams emerged.
A minute of perfect silence was punctured by the playing of God Save The King over the stadium’s loudspeaker system; it remains to be seen whether Uefa take action against that, given advice offered to British clubs before this week’s Champions League fixtures.
The match started with frenetic pace. Rangers should have been ahead within 30 seconds, Alfredo Morelos instead heading wide from a James Tavernier cross. Zielinski cracked McGregor’s right-hand post with a half-volley.
Scott Arfield forced Alex Meret into a fine save from long-range, with Napoli’s response arriving via Giovanni Simeone. McGregor raced sharply from his goal to deny the striker.
Van Bronckhorst had adopted many of the principles of last season’s run to the Europa League final with his selection here. Indeed, it is a damning indictment of Rangers’ summer recruitment that not a single player who arrived during that window featured in the starting XI.
A wonderful Zielinski free-kick somehow evaded all of his team-mates and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia flashed a shot wide but otherwise the home defence coped admirably for much of the first-half. For the first time in three games, Rangers were applauded off at the break.
Rangers opened the second period in a similar manner to the first. This time it was Arfield who was profligate after Tavernier afforded him a free strike at goal from 10 yards.
Controversy was to follow. Sands received a second yellow card for taking out Simeone after the Napoli striker latched on to a glorious Zielinski pass. McGregor batted away Zielinski’s penalty but Politano raced in to slot home the rebound from the tightest of angles. VAR determined multiple cases of encroachment, hence Zielinski was told to try again. He struck the kick to McGregor’s right for the second time; and with the same outcome. This time, no Napoli player was on hand to convert the loose ball. Ibrox breathed a sigh of relief, save the concern of facing the Serie A leaders for half an hour while a man short.
Respite was only brief for Rangers. Kvaratskhelia’s shot was handled by Borna Barisic, with Zielinski taking the smart option of staying well clear of the third penalty of the evening. Instead, Politano buried the ball low to McGregor’s left.
Napoli added gloss to the scoreline. Giacomo Raspadori rounded off a slick move and Tanguy Ndombele flicked home after Glen Kamara had cheaply conceded possession. Napoli march on.