Porto v Rangers: How the sides' last meeting set up historic feat

Ross McCormack fires the ball past Vitor Baia for the equaliser
Ross McCormack fired the ball past Porto keeper Vitor Baia for the equaliser
Europa League: Porto v Rangers
Venue: Estadio do Dragao Date: Thursday, 24 October Kick-off: 17:55 BST
Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland 810MW/DAB/online; live text commentary on the BBC Sport website

The longest winless run the club has endured. A besieged manager on borrowed time. An injury-ravaged team and a 19-year-old supersub.

Rangers' last trip to Porto provided a plot thick with intrigue.

It was a history-making season at Ibrox in 2005-06 - for exploits both positive and negative - as Alex McLeish's reign unravelled.

As the club prepare to return to face the Portuguese giants in a vital Europa League game on Thursday, former midfielder Alex Rae recounts a dramatic night in the Dragao Stadium.

'It was real shoestring stuff at that time'

The Champions League provided refuge for Rangers during a wretched start to the domestic season that left them floundering in third place, 15 points off the title pace by November.

McLeish had delivered a league and League Cup double the previous campaign, but his stock had plummeted in tandem with results and replacements were being openly touted.

Rangers headed to Portugal for their penultimate group fixture after demoralising back-to-back defeats to Celtic. But a gritty defensive display, nicking a late equaliser for a 1-1 draw, kept their qualification hopes alive.

It came amid a club-record run without victory that would stretch to 10 games, but paved the way for a historic feat. A 1-1 home draw with Inter Milan two weeks later sent Rangers through to a last-16 meeting with Villarreal as the first Scottish club to progress beyond the Champions League group phase.

"We didn't start that season well at all," Rae said. "Big Alex later announced he would leave at the end of the season, plus we'd lost a lot of real quality that summer, guys like Shota Arveladze and Michael Ball. Jean-Alain Boumsong had been sold in January.

"That was part of the downsizing situation Rangers were in. I was very much aware the days of signing guys like Tore Andre Flo for £12m were well and truly gone. I think Rangers spent £1.5m the summer I joined. It was real shoestring stuff at that time.

"So getting to the last 16 was a remarkable achievement when you look at the downgrading and the domestic form. We finished third behind Celtic and Hearts that year, which was extremely disappointing as champions."

Living the dream & an inspired substitution

Rae (second left) was thrilled to see his replacement, Ross McCormack, rescue a point for Rangers
Rae (second left) was thrilled to see his replacement, Ross McCormack, rescue a point for Rangers

Rangers faced a barrage of pressure from a slick-passing Porto team that Jose Mourinho had steered to Uefa Cup and Champions League glory within the past two-and-a-half years before departing for Chelsea.

Rae, then 36, had been thrown in at the deep end for his first game in three months after an injury crisis deprived McLeish of seven regulars. It was the only appearance the tenacious midfielder ever made in the Champions League proper and he was determined to savour every second.

"Porto had sold a lot of Mourinho's players and reinvested heavily in guys like Ricardo Quaresma," Rae said. "So it was a very difficult game and a containing job for us.

"I was just happy to get a game and fulfil an ambition - to play in the Champions League was terrific, particularly at my age. I was just trying to take it all in - even the Champions League music."

Rae was miffed to be substituted shortly after a glancing header from Lisandro on the hour had given the hosts the lead and left Rangers on the brink of elimination. His disappointment soon turn to elation, though.

"Alex brought on young Ross McCormack for myself," he said. "I wasn't thinking at the time it was a good decision, but when wee Ross popped up with the equaliser I thought it was a great decision."

It was a stunning contribution from teenage striker McCormack, on his group-stage debut and just his 10th appearance for the club, steering home a knockdown from fellow substitute Chris Burke.

"Ross was only 19 and for Alex to put his confidence in a young player like that, and get that impact and result, was absolutely brilliant," Rae added.

"Young Ross had plenty of belief in his own ability. He was delighted - he was actually going about telling people that night that if he'd got more game time he could have contributed more."

'Morelos key to step in right direction'

Rangers now return to the Dragao Stadium in a cut-throat Europa League section that has all four teams locked on four points after two games.

Rae is impressed by Steven Gerrard's impact in Europe - he led the club to the group stage in his debut campaign as manager - and believes Rangers are now well equipped to break into the knockout round.

"If they can do that it will be another step in the right direction," Rae said. "Last year, people were thinking, 'Can they just get into the group?'

"Steven says he didn't have the strength in depth to compete on all fronts. They are better placed this season to get out of the group as Steven has added good players in the right areas, mostly offensive, and it gives him variations in how to play."

A last-minute goal condemned Rangers to defeat at Young Boys on matchday two, but Rae is convinced in Alfredo Morelos they have a striker capable of troubling "European powerhouse" Porto.

"Morelos absolutely terrorised the opposition in the last game," he said. "He can be the big difference because he can win games on his own. He uses his body very well and his goalscoring record for the club is tremendous."

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