Steven Gerrard had spoken of seeing a sparkle in his players eyes before this one.
In the end, an utterly extraordinary match was settled by the effervescent footwork of Ryan Kent.
The £7million man started on the bench due to what Gerrard described as minor fitness ‘issue’. Introduced on the stroke of half-time for the injured Kemar Roofe, he proved he had more than enough energy to inspire a remarkable late comeback and put Rangers in control of their last-16 fate.
Borna Barisic scored a 90th minute penalty as Rangers beat Royal Antwerp 4-3 on Thursday
The Croatian twice kept his cool from the spot as the Gers came from behind to win
Ryan Kent had drawn Rangers level at 3-3 in the 83rd minute before his side went on to win
Trailing 3-2 after 84 minutes on a night of penalty controversy, VAR debate, red card drama and general mayhem, Gerrard needed something special to turn this first leg around.
Kent delivered. A beautiful, quicksilver run and finish after working a one-two with Alfredo Morelos drew Rangers level. And there was still time for his powerful drive to be blocked by the hand of Abdoulaye Seck.
Off went the Senegalese defender for his second yellow card. And up stepped Borna Barisic to smack in his second spot-kick of the evening and seal a quite astounding victory.
Joe Aribo had opened the scoring for Steven Gerrard’s men in the 38th minute
However Felipe Avenatti pulled the home side level just before the half-time whistle
A contentious penalty decision then saw Lior Refaelov put the hosts 2-1 ahead
Royal Antwerp (3-5-1-1): Beiranvand (De Wolf 77); Le Marchand; Seck; De Laet; Boya (Verstraete 69); Lukaku; Hongla (Gelin 90+1); Gerkens (Miyoshi 90+2); Buta; Refaelov (Ampomah 90+2); Felipe Avenatti
Subs not used: Van Den Bosch; Thiam; Pavlic; Nsimba
Scorers: Avenatti 45, Refaelov 45+8, Hongla 66
Booked: Seck, De Laet
Sent off: Seck
Rangers (4-3-3): McGregor; Goldson; Barisic; Tavernier (Balogun 24); Helander; Arfield (Jack 74); Kamara (Hagi 74); Davis; Aribo; Morelos; Roofe (Kent 45+5)
Subs not used: Wright; Simpson; McLaughlin; Itten; Stewart
Scorers: Aribo 38, Barisic 59, 90, Kent 83
Booked: Barisic, Kent, Arfield
Barisic was only on penalties due to James Tavernier hobbling off in the first half. If that brought home the full impact of the Covid breaches inside the Ibrox squad, it was merely the start of scarcely believable sequence of incidents.
Joe Aribo put Rangers in front before Felipe Avenatti and a Lior Refaelov penalty – from a perplexing call by floundering Bulgarian referee Georgi Kabakov – saw Antwerp turn it around in staggering conclusion to the opening period.
Barisic drew the Ibrox men level, only for Martin Hongla to restore the hosts’ lead prior to the Kent-driven finale that set the seal on an unforgettable first leg.
Rangers deserved it overall and the win brings Gerrard equal with Walter Smith’s tally of 23 European victories. More significant to the Ibrox boss will be the golden chance to seal a last-16 spot for the second successive season in next Thursday’s second leg.
Gerrard introduced Scott Arfield for a first midfield start since December 19, with Roofe orbiting Alfredo Morelos as the two forwards returned from domestic suspension.
Their first flicker of threat came after three minutes. Tavernier delivered deep for Connor Goldson – who had stayed forward from a corner – and the centre back swiped wide off an awkward bounce.
An intervention by the German VAR officials – headed by Felix Zwayer – studied a handball by Pieter Gerkens just before Goldson struck, but they deemed it wasn’t a spot-kick offence. You could easily argue the opposite.
A bigger blow for Rangers arrived when Tavernier charged in to try and win a loose ball but came off second-best in a block challenge with Hongla.
It immediately looked as though the Ibrox skipper had damaged his right knee. He briefly played on before sitting down to signal the need for treatment.
Again, Tavernier tried to come back on from the sideline, only to fall back to the turf in discomfort.
Of course, the natural replacement at right back was sitting at home watching the game on television. Among five players fined and told to isolate for breaching Covid regulations, Nathan Patterson must have winced anew at his stupidity. What an opportunity this would have been for the 19-year-old.
The Gers were awarded a penalty in the 59th minute which Barisic cooly converted
Martin Hongla then put Antwerp ahead once again in the 66th minute of the match
As it was, Patterson’s absence from the squad meant Gerrard had to summon Leon Balagon as a more defensively-minded substitute for his skipper.
Despite that, Rangers, began to assume control. And Morelos should have put them in front on 29 minutes.
The Colombian timed his run perfectly to stay onside but went too close to goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand with an attempted near-post finish.
Morelos would play in his part in the lead arriving nine minutes later as Rangers capitalised on an almighty blunder by Beiranvand.
Goldson pinged a long pass for Roofe to chase, with the Iranian keeper racing from his line to block. He slid low to do that, but the ball then squirmed away from him. Morelos nicked in sharply to prevent Beiranvand re-gathering and laid it in front of Aribo.
From around 25 yards, the Nigerian coolly stroked home off his left foot. It was the 100th goal of Rangers’ season.
That landmark should have delivered a half-time advantage. Incredibly, though, Gerrard’s men went in behind after a mix of self-inflicted blows and eye-popping calls from Kabakov.
The former arrived first. Barisic fouled Refaelov to pick up a booking and concede a free-kick the Israeli playmaker delivered with accuracy and pace. Avenatti was Barisic’s man but ran off him far too easily before planting a terrific header beyond Allan McGregor from 15 yards.
Roofe then became the second enforced substitution after pulling up – eventually being replaced by Kent.
Up went the board for six added minutes. That had already elapsed when Steven Davis made the lightest of contact on Refaelov’s heels.
Kabakov had a good view of the incident but bought the theatrical tumble. Just as remarkable was that VAR upheld his penalty decision on review.
Now in the eighth added minute, Refaelov stepped up to beat McGregor with a flawless conversion from the spot.
Kent was introduced for the injured Kemar Roofe and had a huge impact on the game
Barisic had the final say as he dispatched the spot-kick in the 90th minute as Rangers held on
The injustice seemed to renew Rangers’ drive as they surged into the second half.
Aribo came close to netting when he beat Beiranvand with an angled shot that was clearly off the line by Maxime Le Marchand. Then, on 59 minutes, came the belated VAR payback.
Kabakov continued his unconvincing evening by missing a tug on Alfredo Morelos as he sought to reach a cross ball.
Zwayer intervened and the referee was summoned to view footage. De Laet was booked for the offence and a penalty awarded. But who would take it with Tavernier off? Barisic assumed responsibility and drilled home with sufficient power despite Beiranvand guessing the way. It marked his 100th appearance for the club.
Again, Rangers looked in command. Again, though, they conceded cheaply as Antwerp levelled on 66 minutes with their first real threat since the interval.
Refaelov slipped the ball inside to the on-rushing Hongla, who was given too much time to size up a strike from the edge of the area. Stuck right-footed, it was swept with a curl past McGregor.
Substitute Ianis Hagi missed a great chance to level before Kent took over and brilliantly beat substitute goalkeeper Ortwin De Wolf. Even then, McGregor had to pull off saves either side of Barisic’s clinching penalty. It was that kind of crazy night.