Steven Gerrard’s first competitive match in charge of Rangers would always prove instructive. Gerrard and his players are not quite in the position whereby a Europa League qualifying second leg in Macedonia next week will be a formality, as was surely the aim before a ball was kicked here. That, in itself, speaks towards the levels of improvement needed if Rangers are to become any kind of force once more. Given the scale of rebuilding job he will have to oversee, baby steps are perhaps inevitable.
Legendary playing status and adulation from a new supporter base will not halt moans and groans as emerged on a balmy Glasgow evening. Spells of decent Rangers play, particularly in the opening half, were undermined by profligacy. And yet, most significantly, victory to nil was delivered.
Gerrard will rightly point to context; Scottish clubs, Celtic aside, have endured a dreadful time in European qualifiers in recent times. Rangers at least have an advantage to try and defend, as boosted by a stoppage time James Tavernier penalty for a 2-0 outcome.
Gerrard has become used to rapturous receptions around these parts. He was afforded another one before kick-off; the capacity Ibrox crowd is itself telling in respect of the fever-pitch excitement attached to the Liverpool icon’s arrival. There is no indication whatsoever of the novelty wearing off just yet. That said, the depressing familiarity of recurring chants more suited to an Ulster loyalist rally than a European football tie illustrated how the concept of a bold new era is not wholly accurate.
Any stumble against limited opposition would not help Gerrard’s status, of course. Shkupi finished 40 points adrift of the Macedonian champions last season. Memories of an embarrassing Europa League exit for Rangers at the hands of a team from Luxembourg 12 months ago have not receded. When the laughing from rival fans in Scotland subsided, the reality was that stumble undermined the tenure of Pedro Caixinha to an unrecoverable extent.
Rangers had opened brightly before the delivery of a sharp warning shot. In the 14th minute, with the visitors’ first meaningful foray into Rangers territory, Blagojce Ljamcevski clipped the top of the crossbar. One intriguing aspect of Gerrard’s preferred deployment of a 4-3-3 formation will be whether full-backs will find themselves exposed; precisely that transpired as Shkupi broke.
Rangers heeded the warning in timely fashion. Jamie Murphy’s key problem with cutting inside the penalty area on his left foot was the appearance of a teammate, Alfredo Morelos, directly between him and goal. Morelos duly adjusted his position as Murphy shot, with the Shkupi goalkeeper Suat Zendeli hardly covering himself in glory as the ball bounced into his net.
Zendeli did partly redeem himself with a fine stop to deny a net-bound Josh Windass header as Rangers looked to press home further a level of superiority most obvious when they attacked.
Zendeli produced more acrobatics to tip a deflected Jon Flanagan effort wide for a corner. By the interval Shkupi were glad of respite given Rangers had laid siege to their goal. Scott Arfield had passed up the most glaring opportunity, the midfielder supplying a comedic miskick when six yards out.
In endorsing the benefit of their break, Shkupi opened the second period with a new-found level of confidence in possession. Had they sensed an element of vulnerability in the Rangers defence, that would have been fair. However, pretty passing patterns amounted to nothing by way of clear-cut chances for the Macedonians. A flurry of ineffective corners was the sum of this spell.
Gerrard, who barely strayed from the touchline all evening, called on the combative Ryan Jack from among his substitutes in a bid to reassert Rangers’ grip on the game. That Daniel Candeias, a far more attacking player than his replacement, made way further highlighted the manager’s concern. With more than half an hour to play, the game had regressed badly; a scenario far more appealing to Shkupi than Rangers.
Gerrard called on substitutes twice more – Oviemuno Ejaria and Glenn Middleton – in a bid to rejuvenate his team.
A spot-kick did that, and offered breathing space, with Tavernier coolly converting after Murphy was upended.