Colak sinks PSV Eindhoven to put Rangers in Champions League

Another famous European night for Rangers, this one returning them to the promised land as a 12-year exile from the Champions League group stages came to its end.

Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s team held their nerve against opponents coached by his close friend Ruud van Nistelrooy. Antonio Colak’s second-half goal came as PSV, frustrated by their dominance failing to result in a clear opening, coughed up a catastrophic mistake. The outstanding Malik Tillman forced the error that means Rangers will join Celtic in Thursday’s draw, the first time in 15 years Scotland’s big two have been there together.

After last season’s run to the Europa League final, Rangers’ canniness on the European stage told against inexperienced, impetuous opponents, who lost much of their threat once their leading striker, Luuk de Jong, was forced off with injury.

“It was an epic performance,” said Jon McLaughlin, the Rangers goalkeeper, having been asked to make a number of saves. “That’s exactly what we had to execute. The last few years, the European performances have been out of this world.”

A moment had been seized ruthlessly before Rangers dug in for victory against fresher opponents. PSV had been given the weekend off by the Dutch football association, such levity not given Rangers by the SFA. The weekend’s draw with Hibernian, and Alfredo Morelos’s red card, had cast a shadow, Van Bronckhorst ruling the striker “not ready to play”. With his goal in the first leg, and this most crucial of strikes, Colak has already gone significant distance to make Rangers forget their dissident former talisman.

Progress was achieved in testing conditions. PSV fans had swarmed all over Rangers’ team bus, a delayed start requested after scenes Van Bronckhorst said were “the worst I’ve seen as a player or manager”. Request denied, kick off at 9pm local time came amid temperatures of 30 degrees. “We used it to be ready,” said Rangers’ manager afterwards of that warm welcome. “When this happens the victory tastes sweeter.”

Next, an on-field storm to weather. PSV began with intent, reported Manchester United target Cody Gakpo to the fore but Rangers had not come to sit back all night. John Lundstram should have done far better than smashing wide from Tillman’s layoff after a slick passing sequence. “I was more relaxed than last week because of the way we played, very controlled,” said Van Bronckhorst.

De Jong, dominant in the air, his movement threatening, narrowly failed to reach a Jordan Teze cross as PSV created myriad openings towards the end of the first half. Gakpo, reigning Dutch footballer of the year, belied his growing reputation by digging over the bar when he had already held off Sands and McLaughlin had already committed himself.

Half-time saw the loss of De Jong, his shin strapped in ice on the bench. The captain’s physical presence and nous would surely have made more of the number of PSV crosses that rained into the Rangers box after the break. Xavi Simons, a Rangers transfer target this summer, had come on, his danger flickering only briefly.

When Tom Lawrence rattling the angle of post and crossbar in the 57th minute, it signalled Rangers a foothold. By targeting PSV defenders’ discomfort in possession the goal came. A pressurised Armando Obispo at full-back passed to a nervy Walter Benítez, the goalkeeper who had dropped a clanger in the first leg. Colak chased the ball down as the keeper’s pass sold the helpless, disorientated André Ramalho short. In stole the Bayern Munich loanee Tillman, simultaneously alert and cool in setting up Colak to pass into an empty net.

“It was two against one and I had no choice to play it to Antonio,” said Tillman, somewhat modestly. “It was a team goal.”

“You want to find opportunities to press them, and we found them,” said Van Bronckhorst. “We were waiting for the ball to be played. The first touch in football is the most important touch. We scored at the right moment.”

Tillman’s drive from the edge of the area almost doubled Rangers’ advantage, as fresh legs in Scott Arfield and Scott Wright arrived to help shore matters up. Philipp Max dragged a shot wide and Gakpo, his previous influence having waned by then, lost a one-on-one with McLaughlin as PSV visibly began to lose discipline and belief.

Rangers meanwhile showed expertise and poise in running down the clock. Steadily, determinedly, the club’s journey back to a seat alongside Europe’s elite that once took in places like Annan and Peterhead in Scotland’s third division was seen out to its joyful completion.