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It wasn't pretty, but Gerrard's Gers reign is up and running

Rangers 2 Shkupi 0

By Andy Newport

Steven Gerrard got his Rangers reign off to a winning start as the Ibrox side battled their way to a 2-0 Europa League qualifying win over FK Shkupi.

Jamie Murphy put the hosts ahead against the Macedonians midway through the first half, but it was not the kind of display the excited Gers faithful had been expecting from their new boss' first game in charge.

With their team not only sluggish but also wasteful in front of goal, the supporters could have been forgiven for thinking they were in for a repeat of last year's humiliating upset at the hands of Luxembourg minnows Progres Niederkorn.

But new skipper James Tavernier ensured Gerrard's side will head to Skopje for next Tuesday's first qualifying round return leg with the kind of breathing space they were hoping for after tucking home a stoppage-time penalty.

Gerrard handed debuts to five of his summer signings.

Allan McGregor was back in goal six years after calling time on his first Ibrox spell, while Connor Goldson and Nikola Katic were paired together in a new centre-back partnership.

Left-back Jon Flanagan and midfielder Scott Arfield also made their competitive bows.

Gerrard will no doubt be pleased with the way his side monopolised the possession stats, but their failure to convert that to the scoresheet will have frustrated the Champions League winner.

It took nine minutes of gentle probing for the hosts to create their first serious opening, but Murphy could not finish after Suat Zendeli punched a Tavernier cross his way.

But the sight of Shkupi midfielder Blagoja Ljamchevski clipping the top of McGregor's bar on the quarter-hour mark as he shot from the edge of the area would have brought horrible memories of last year's early exit flooding back.

Thankfully for Gerrard, Rangers' breakthrough did arrive after 23 minutes.

Daniel Candeias released Tavernier down the inside right channel and he did well to find Murphy darting in from the left.

The winger could have played in Alfredo Morelos but instead went on his own as he ghosted past one defender before firing through a ruck of legs.

Yet the failure of Josh Windass, Morelos and Goldson to bury three golden chances before the break ensured a frostier welcome from the manager into the dressing room at half-time.

Windass saw a close-range header pushed away by Zendeli, while Goldson and Morelos both failed to find the target despite being picked out by Tavernier.

The right-back put in another wicked cross after 64 minutes as rusty Rangers eventually produced their first chance of the second period, but again Windass fluffed his headed attempt.

Gerrard introduced another new signing, Ovie Ejaria, soon after and the on-loan Liverpool youngster felt he should have had a penalty after tumbling over Kristijan Stojkoski's leg.

Shkupi were wasting time, but Gers got the break they needed at the death as Amir Bilali's trip on Murphy was punished by Tavernier from the spot.

Belfast Telegraph


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