For weeks, Seville had been the destination for Rangers’ European journey and it was here at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan where it came to a sudden and crushing end. Joe Aribo’s second-half finish had put Rangers within touching distance of a first European trophy in 50 years, but Eintracht Frankfurt equalised, took it to penalties and it was there where this once-in-a-generation final went in the way of the German side.
Ryan Kent had the chance to win it in the dying seconds of extra time, the opportunity to claim the Europa League there for the taking. He was denied by the outstretched leg of Eintracht goalkeeper Kevin Trapp, who would be the hero in the shoot-out. Aaron Ramsey’s miss was pivotal, and there was a cruel irony to the fact that the player who had the most experience of nights such as these was the one to blink first. Rafael Borre, who scored the equaliser to deny Rangers, would also provide the finishing blow with a perfect penalty to the top corner.
And that was it – one penalty to separate two teams who had defied the odds to set up one of the most unexpected European finals in recent memory. For Rangers, the joy of reaching this final had been in the celebration of victories against Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig, of proving their position on the European stage. The focus was on the present, but it is difficult now not to think of what might have been. They will not be joining Celtic in the Champions League group stages automatically next season, and will instead have to fight their way through qualification. The chance to win European silverware has gone. When will it come around again?
It’s a harsh way to reflect on what has been a brilliant campaign. Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side were never outfought but they were perhaps missing the sheer intensity and heady ferociousness of those nights at Ibrox. The atmosphere at the Pizjuan produced by both sides was tremendous, but nervous energy was the prevailing emotion. Rangers remain a side who have punched well above their weight. The starting line-up Rangers put out was assembled for around £12 million. Aribo was a £180,000 signing from Charlton. Their player of the match, Calvin Bassey, was an unheralded free signing from Leicester City.
And yet they came so close. This Rangers team will still go down in history, but Kent’s miss in the 118th minute will also be remembered as their sliding doors moment. It took a while for the drama to arrive. After a tense and even first half, this was a game that desperately needed a goal. Two arrived in quick succession to blow it wide open, as Aribo’s opener was cancelled out by Borre. As Eintracht pressed while Rangers fought against the exhaustion in what was a baking evening in Seville, they held on for extra time – which was itself another torrid and fraught period of play right up until Kent’s miss.
Rangers fans had descended upon Seville by any means possible. Somehow, whether driving from Barcelona, booking a taxi from Faro, or getting the train from Malaga, they arrived and their number was said to top 100,000. It was a pilgrimage, and the streets of Seville were coloured in a sea of blue, white and orange in the searing sun. They had turned out for a first European final in 14 years, a stage many thought they would not return to after being dropped to the fourth division of Scottish football just nine years ago.
They would have to do without the power of Ibrox. Rangers had received just under 10,000 tickets for the final but they ended up with far more in the stadium. The royal blue was met by another sleeping European giant, Eintracht Frankfurt, a wall of white on the other side of the Pizjuan, but Rangers still managed to edge their number. It created a stunning scene, a fitting backdrop for a final thought lost to European football.
Eintracht started off sharper and received space out wide through the lively pair of Filip Kostic and Ansgar Knauff. The referee, Slavko Vincic, was remarkably lenient throughout the match, a tone he set early on after John Lundstrum was fortunate to not receive a yellow card after drawing blood from the head of Eintracht captain Sebastian Rode with his studs.
Rangers were dulled and looked heavy, not surprisingly perhaps in conditions that topped 30 degrees before kick-off and led to a water break midway through the first half. Knauff tested Allan McGregor before Kostic slashed wide after leading the breakaway. The Eintracht attempts were mounting.
Rangers grew into it with gradual and considered possession but as half time came it was as level and even as had been predicted. When the teams emerged after the break Eintracht’s half was clouded in a plume of white smoke, but what this final needed most of all was a goal. Finals are typically tight and tense affairs but the meeting of two underdogs perhaps left both unsure of how to grab the initiative.
It was Eintracht who again started brighter. Jesper Lindstrom’s deflected shot left McGregor stranded but dropped just wide. Borre tumbled in the box under Connor Goldson but saw appeals waved away. It was fortunate, perhaps, and Ryan Kent almost punished it after finding himself in space. He slashed wide, but Aribo was far more clinical.
It was a gift from Frankfurt. Djibril Sow’s backwards header dropped over the head of the defender Tuta, who panicked as Aribo raced away. The Brazilian slipped, an agonising collapse to the turf, as Aribo tucked the ball under goalkeeper Kevin Trapp. With Alfredo Morelos injured and Kemar Roofe only fit enough for the bench, Rangers had found their goalscorer.
The good fortune was almost returned. Goldson slipped as he cleared from the edge of his box. Rode played it on to Daichi Kamada, Eintracht’s top scorer in the competition with five goals. He could not add to it, as he lifted a lob onto the top of the net, but Rangers would not heed the warning of a swift Eintracht response.
The equaliser came from wide and within 12 minutes of Aribo’s opener. Kostic whipped a dangerous ball low and across the face of McGregor’s goal. Goldson was caught, Borre was on his toes, and the Colombian arrived at the front post to beat McGregor.
There was still more than 20 minutes of normal time to play but the momentum had swung in Eintracht’s favour, the ball sucked towards the Rangers goal by the mass of white behind McGregor’s goal. A free-kick from Kostic bounced horribly in front of the goalkeeper and had to be tipped over the crossbar. Everything was going in their direction.
The magnificent Bassey held firm, the 22-year-old not missing a tackle, and substitute Fashion Sakala sparked hope with a driven ball across goal. Rangers were tired, hanging on, and although Kostic fired a dangerous cross inches wide as Eintracht again came forward, they made it to extra time.
It could have been a story of two slips. Bassey, for the first time in the evening, put a foot wrong as Borre seized upon his loose touch. But the defender recovered, racing back to slide in, to drag Rangers on. Rangers had stopped creating chances but so too had Eintracht. As extra time ticked on, the point where penalties began to feel inevitable and changes were made with that in mind.
Finally, in the 118h minute, Rangers threatened. Roofe flashed the ball across and Kent arrived at the back post. The Europa League was there to be won but Trapp somehow threw his leg in the way, before Steve Davis’ shot was deflected over. James Tavernier was handed a free kick on the edge of the box as it reached stoppage time. Trapp, covering his near post well, was equal to it.
Rangers had the first victory in the shoot-out, with Tavernier winning the toss to take it in front of the baying Rangers end. Eintracht were faultless. Ramsey missed. Perhaps the chance had already gone.