Europa League play-offs
Celtic and Rangers strike a blow for Scottish football
Steven Gerrard has guided Rangers into the main phase of a European tournament for the first time in many years (pic: SNS Group)
FC Ufa 1, Rangers 1 (agg: 1-2)
Celtic 3, Suduva 0 (agg: 4-1)
Celtic and Rangers both qualified for the group stages of the Europa League to complete a successful night for Scottish football.
Steven Gerrard’s side had to do it the hard way after being reduced to nine men against Ufa, Alfredo Morelos and Jon Flanagan both seeing red in Russia.
It was a more straightforward evening for Brendan Rodgers’ Hoops, for whom Leigh Griffiths netted his 100th goal for the club when opening the scoring against Suduva.
It is the first time since 2007/08 that two Scottish clubs have made it into the group phase of a European competition.
Celtic will be in pot 2 for the draw in Monaco, Rangers in No. 4. They cannot, however, be drawn together as clubs from the same country can’t be paired together until the knockout stages.
Rangers had seemed on course for a comfortable night when Ovie Ejaria put them 2-0 ahead on aggregate after just nine minutes in the Neftyanik Stadium
However, Ufa pulled one back when Dmitri Sysuev drilled his shot past Allan McGregor just after the 30-minute mark to give the home side hope.
A moment of madness from striker Morelos eight minutes from the break saw the petulant Colombian pick up his second yellow card for dissent. He had already been booked for kicking the ball away before getting his marching orders for a further show of dissent just seconds later.
That was the last thing his team-mates needed as they set about repelling a rejuvenated opponent.
Worse was to follow in the 66th minute when Jon Flanagan saw red for a second bookable offence, his dismissal turning the pressure on Rangers as Ufa sensed a chance to get the two goals required to take them through.
With the Rangers defence standing firm, though, the Russians were left frustrated as Gerrard’s team managed to see out the remaining time without any further damage.
“It feels good, it’s what we deserve and I feel tonight we became a team,” said the manager, who remains unbeaten since taking the Ibrox reins.
“We relaunched Rangers tonight and I feel we have achieved something together.
“The guys are drained, tired but happy and they deserve to be happy.
“The players need to take all the credit.
“I’m not going to criticise anyone tonight. I hope the guys realise that they made the job very tough for the team tonight, they apologise and move on.”
Rangers: McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Katic, Flanagan, Candeias (Lafferty, 45), Jack, Ejaria, Arfield (Halliday, 69), Kent, Morelos.
Goals: Ufa – Sysuev (32); Rangers – Ejaria (9)
Rodgers left out Moussa Dembele for Celtic’s return leg against the Lithuanian champions, the Frenchman having been at the centre of fevered transfer talk, with Lyon having had ‘a significant offer’ rejected by the club, according to his manager.
Once Griffiths had slotted home a trademark free-kick after 27 minutes, Celtic were quickly into cruise control.
Further goals from Callum McGregor and Kristoffer Ajer after the break gave a more realistic look to the scoreline.
While reaching the group stages is a remarkable feat for rookie boss Gerrard given the Rangers squad he inherited and the rebuilding which has since taken place, such progress in Europe’s second-tier competition is some consolation for his opposite number at Parkhead after being knocked out of the Champions League by AEK Athens.
“We had the opportunity to get to Champions League but we didn’t take it,” said Rodgers.
“This is a competition of great prestige with historical clubs like Arsenal, AC Milan and Lazio. It’s a great reward and I’m very much looking forward to the games.
“It’s maybe not the glamour competition but we need the support and it was great to see nearly every seat full tonight.”
No sooner had the dust settled on the two matches, than thoughts quickly turned to Sunday’s Old Firm encounter at Parkhead.
Rodgers is set to bolster his squad ahead of the big game by signing former Kilmarnock midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu as a free agent and bringing defender Filip Benkovic in on loan from Leicester City.
Celtic: Gordon, Lustig, Boyata, Ajer, Tierney (Izaguirreat, 69), McGregor, Brown, Ntcham, Johnston (Hayes, 79), Griffiths (Christie, 65), Sinclair.
Goals: Celtic – Griffiths (27), McGregor (52), Ajer (61).
Hearts boss Craig Levein hopes to be back in the dugout for the game against Motherwell on September 15 (pic: SNS Group)
Levein aiming for dugout return against Motherwell after heart scare
Hearts manager Craig Levein hopes to be back in the dugout in two weeks’ time following his health scare.
Now back home recovering after being admitted to hospital on Monday with a heart problem, the 53-year-old has targeted the visit of Motherwell on September 15 for his return.
The former Scotland manager took to social media to provide an update, saying: “Out of Twitter retirement for a short period. I’d like everyone to know that I’m feeling great and aiming to be back in the dugout for the Motherwell match, all being well. I’d like to thank the paramedics and all staff in the CCU at ERI for their care and professionalism.
“I’d also like to thank the professional footballing family for their amazing support, it’s been overwhelming. Huge respect and gratitude to the Hearts supporters and those of other clubs (including our friends across the city) who have taken time to wish me well.
Assistant manager Austin MacPhee said Levein would select the team for Saturday’s clash with St Mirren.
“He’s recovering well. He’s home now and he’s in very good spirits and we are all delighted that that’s the case,,” he said.
“Craig will pick the team at the weekend. At individual moments within the game, myself, Liam Fox, Jon Daly, Paul (Gallacher), Andy Kirk in the stand, we will all make those individual decisions but I will have talked through every eventuality with him.
“I don’t know what he will be doing at 3pm on Saturday but the main thing for all of us is we put in a performance that he will be proud of, of course a performance that allows us to win the game, and also put in a performance that makes him feel that he can relax about his recovery.”