Crouched low in his technical area, fists clenched and roaring in celebration, Steven Gerrard greeted the moment like few before in his Rangers tenure.
It was a feeling of glorious release. Of pent-up frustration exploding into joy. And of his side heading to the top of Europa League Group G.
The Ibrox manager had just witnessed James Tavernier dispatch an 83rd minute penalty with his captain’s now customary coolness. He knew then that Rangers would have a tangible reward for all their efforts.
Alfredo Morelos slips the ball past the onrushing Richard Strebinger to seal Rangers’ win
Morelos basks in the adulation of the raucous Ibrox crowd as they surged to the top of Group G
Steven Gerrard leaps in delight as the hosts won in Ibrox’s first European game in eight years
James Tavernier celebrates finding the top corner from the spot to give Rangers victory
Alfredo Morelos was fouled inside the penalty area with just seven minutes remaining
Alfredo Morelos slides home from six yards out to level the match for Rangers
Steven Gerrard’s side had been behind barely a minute before equalising on Thursday
Morelos is embraced by team-mates after converting from James Tavernier’s cross
Rapid Vienna’s Veton Berisha had put the Austrian side ahead despite calls for offside
MATCH FACTS AND MATCH ZONE
Rangers: McGregor, Tavernier, Worrall, Goldson, Flanagan, Arfield, Coulibaly, Ejaria, Kent (Halliday 90), Morelos (Middleton 90+5), Candeias
Subs not used: Foderingham, Katic, Barisic, Grezda, Lafferty
Goalscorers: Morelos 43, 90+4, Tavernier 84
Rapid Vienna: Strebinger, Muldur, Barac (Dibon 33), Sonnleitner, Potzmann, Schwab, Ivan (Alar 58), Murg, Ljubicic, Berisha (Bolingoli-Mbombo 72), Pavlovic
Subs not used: Knoflach, Martic, Auer, Knasmullner
Goalscorers: Berisha 42
Booked: Berisha, Muldur, Ivan, Schwab, Pavlovic
Referee: Ruddy Buquet
A late third from Alfredo Morelos, his second of the evening, set the seal on memorable return for European group stage football at Ibrox after an eight year absence.
Gerrard had looked increasingly exasperated as the second half progressed at 1-1, throwing up his hands in anger at a succession of fouls by a muscular Rapid side. But his side simply refused to be denied.
Behind to a Veton Berisha goal that should have been ruled out for offside during the build-up, they swiftly levelled through Morelos before the break. Momentum was with them from that point. And, eventually, they made it count.
A tenth successive unbeaten game in this competition is a feat in itself. But Rangers now have a bigger prize in sight. Spartak Moscow are in Glasgow later this month. Victory in that one would shift Gerrard’s side within touching distance of the last 32.
Bitterly disappointed by Sunday’s 1-0 defeat to Livingston – after which he claimed his side could have played all day without scoring – the 38-year-old wanted a proactive approach from the first whistle here.
He had spoken of decisions to make in terms of team selection, given how much Rangers had underperformed in Livingston. Ultimately, though, only two changes were made.
Berisha celebrates after stunning the Ibrox home crowd into silence on Thursday night
Rapid Vienna goalkeeper Richard Strebinger shows concern for Mateo Barac
Blood streams down the defender’s face after a clash of heads with Alfredo Morelos
Jon Flanagan and Ryan Kent were introduced, while Borna Barisic and Kyle Lafferty dropped to the bench. The rest were given a shot at redemption.
Ibrox was crackling with nervous energy by the time they appeared from the tunnel. A strong visiting support, penned between the Broomloan Road and Sandy Jardine stands, added an additional intensity to the anticipatory atmosphere.
Unfurling a large banner bearing the Celtic-esque phrase ‘Come on you boys in green’ wasn’t designed to win any friends.
Domestic woes have left Rapid 14 points behind Red Bull Salzburg and led to the sacking of manager Goran Djuricin on Sunday.
Selecting Dietmar Kuhbauer as his replacement brought a club favourite back into the fold. The hope was of an immediate emotional lift when they returned to continental combat.
That was borne out to some extent. At the end of a first half that could politely be described as a slow-burner, Rapid traded blows with Gerrard’s men to cause a sudden spike in adrenalin. Parity at its end was probably fair.
It took 21 minutes for a clear opportunity to arrive. And it came for the visitors.
Veton Berisha – booked earlier for a high challenge on Connor Goldson – flighted in a terrific, deep cross from the left.
Andrija Pavlovic rose to meet it unencumbered by a centre-back challenge, yet glanced his header beyond the far post. He should have done far better.
Rangers were toiling to get a similar view of goal. Not that there was any shortage of energy or commitment. Hassling and pressing Rapid bore fruit at times. Finding the creative spark to maximise that hard-won possession was a more troublesome task.
One dinked Ryan Kent cross led to Morelos and Mateo Barac clashing heads in an aerial challenge at the far post.
Rangers youngster Ove Ejaria is slid into from behind by opposition player Andrei Ivan
The Liverpool loanee attempts to slide in an win the ball from Andrija Paviovic
The Rapid centre-back came off far the worse. With blood streaming from his head and clearly angered, Barac eventually had to be replaced by Christopher Dibon.
The game needed a spark for ignition. It arrived four minutes before half-time via a Rangers concession that should have been been ruled out for offside.
Flanagan appealed in vain for assistant referee Amaury Delerue to raise his flag when Andrei Ivan darted beyond him into space on the right. So far, so unjust. But the Ibrox defence could still have done better in clearing up the danger.
Lassana Coulibaly slid in to block Ivan’s cutback into the area, yet only succeeded in cannoning it across the danger zone. Berisha reacted first to slot past McGregor, who was booked for complaining towards the officials.
The Rapid fans became a green blur of celebration. Their Rangers counterparts were briefly deflated before noisily urging a response. That call was answered within two minutes.
Gerrard’s side swept forward, with Kent finding James Tavernier on one his overlapping runs beyond Daniel Candeais. There are few better crossers in the land than the Ibrox skipper.
Opening his top drawer, Tavernier swept an outstanding delivery across the edge of the six-yard box for Morelos to convert on the stretch.
Rangers winger Ryan Kent battles for possession of the ball with Mert Muldur
From there, Rangers had the momentum. Bit by bit, the pressure increased. The only question during a strong second period was whether that moment of incision would actually arrive.
Ibrox thought it had after 68 minutes. When Candeias slung over a cross from the right, it looked for all the world that Ovie Ejaria’s header would find the net. Somehow, though, Strebinger thrust out a hand to parry clear.
Morelos then tested the goalkeeper from 18 yards. The fear was of no way through being found. But then, with eight minutes remaining, the Colombian surged into the area and was taken clean out by Mario Sonnleitner.
Referee Ruddy Buquet had no option but to award the penalty. And Tavernier did the rest.
The evening was complete deep into injury time as Morelos was released clean through to finish, bringing Gerrard almost onto the pitch in delight.