Rangers’ first step towards the Champions League ended in some despair with a 2-0 defeat by Union St-Gilloise in the first leg of their third qualifying round in Belgium.
The Ibrox side’s exciting journey to the Europa League final last season whetted the appetite for European football’s elite club competition. However, amid a passive first-half performance by the Light Blues, the home side took the lead in the 27th minute when captain Teddy Teuma opened the scoring with a shot which asked questions of Jon McLaughlin’s attempt to save.
A laboured display from Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side continued after the break and a Dante Vanzeir penalty in the 76th minute doubled the Belgian side’s lead.
The return game is at Ibrox next Tuesday and Rangers will have to come up with something really special if they are to face either Monaco or PSV Eindhoven in the playoff.
The Scottish Cup winners travelled in good mood to Belgium despite missing injured winger Ryan Kent and defender John Souttar, with the latter replaced by James Sands. Wales international Rabbi Matondo made his competitive debut and fellow new signing Malik Tillman was in from the start.
McLaughlin kept his place in goal over last season’s No 1, Allan McGregor, for a match played 30 miles outside of Brussels at Den Dreef Stadium in Leuven as USG’s ground was not up to scratch for a European tie.
It was a mainly controlled opening to the game by Rangers. In the seventh minute a left-footed free-kick from the edge of the box by Borna Barisic drew a fine save at his near post by Anthony Moris, who then saved long-distance drives from Sands and Tillman.
However, clear-cut chances remained elusive and when USG – who are owned by the Brighton owner Tony Bloom – eventually came alive they were soon rewarded. In the 25th minute Vanzeir slid a cross from Simon Adingra, on loan from Brighton, just past the near post.
But two minutes later, after Rangers failed to mop up danger inside their box, the ball fell to Teuma and he fired the ball through the hands of McLaughlin, changing the mood of the game.
Rangers were no more cohesive at the start of the second half.
Just before the hour mark wing-back Bart Nieuwkoop drove inches wide of McLaughlin’s left-hand post from the edge of the box. Van Bronckhorst acted in the 67th minute with defenders Ridvan Yilmaz and Ben Davies coming on to make their debuts, with Barisic and Ryan Jack making way.
But it soon got worse for the visitors. In the 71st minute McLaughlin made saves from Adinga and then Vanzeir but as a VAR check stopped play, referee Irfan Peljto decided Teuma’s drive, which hit the arm of defender Connor Goldson, was deserving of a penalty. Vanzeir sent McLaughlin the wrong way.
McLaughlin then denied Vanzeir to prevent it becoming 3-0 with James Tavernier clearing off the line in added time. Rangers have the chance to recover the tie next week but a vast improvement will be required.