Rangers 0 Stuttgart 2: Abject Gers beaten for third time at home and miserably crash out of Europe

Rangers crashed out of Europe last night — and the dull thud will echo all the way from Govan to Murray Park to the Lloyds Banking Group.

Markus Babbel’s VfB Stuttgart were on a 10-match winless run until they came to Ibrox but, in keeping with an appalling season for our clubs in continental competition, the Germans found redemption on Scottish soil.

Rangers, meanwhile, are left to rake over the ashes of a dreadful Champions League campaign that has yielded two points in five games. They also kissed goodbye to a passport into Europe beyond Christmas and the extra cash that would have given their impoverished accounts.

Equally priceless was the glorious chance missed by Kris Boyd on his big night out, the striker heading an effort miserably high late in the first half when he should have cancelled out Sebastian Rudy’s 16th-minute opener. A few SPL defenders who have been tormented by Boyd of late would have been laughing in their armchairs.

Sebastian Rudy

Perfect start: Sebastian Rudy celebrates his early goal for Stuttgart

When Zdravko Kuzmanovic showed the Scotland refusenik how it was done and headed home Stuttgart’s killer second on the hour mark, there was plenty time left for the home fans to mimic their team —and head for an early exit.

Only the goalkeeping prowess of Allan McGregor stood between Rangers and a far more embarrassing scoreline. As if an aggregate of ‘two for’ and ‘10 against’ in three home Champions League ties wasn’t bad enough.

There were no other saving graces. Those three Ibrox defeats tell the whole story of a wretched campaign that has been Kaunas revisited.

Walter Smith’s men were ripped apart in the early stages last night, just as they had been in the second half against Sevilla and Unirea Urziceni. But this time there was even more confusion in the blue ranks as they struggled to come to grips with a new formation.

The manager initially went 3-4-3 as he presumably sought to be both hard to break down and dangerous in attack. It didn’t turn out anything like that and he is bound to regret tinkering too far.

It was certainly a shock to see Lee McCulloch in a back three, although 17-year-old Danny Wilson did well enough by his side. Stuttgart keeper Jens Lehmann had expressed surprise before the game at facing such a young boy on Champions League duty, but Madjid Bougherra had already made Smith’s decision for him, of course, after effectively de-selecting himself by returning home late from international duty.

Knowing victory was vital last night, Kevin Thomson seemed determined to make an impact from the outset. Leaving an imprint on one of Ricardo Osorio’s shins wasn’t the smartest idea, however, and he was fortunate to escape a third-minute yellow card.

Kris Boyd

Shocker: Kris Boyd reacts after missing a first half chance for Rangers

At least McGregor then made the right kind of impression, his superb early save denying Cacau after Steven Whittaker had been guilty of poor defending. It was a sign of things to come.

Even at this early stage, Smith’s team formation was becoming unclear. Was it 3-6-1? Maybe even 5-4-1? Whatever it was, the players didn’t have a handle on it and there always seemed to be space to be exploited in behind Whittaker.

Hardly a surprise, then, when Rangers fell behind inside 16 minutes as Whittaker was torn apart down the right. Alexander Hleb worked the space superbly and, although Pavel Pogrebnyak mishit his shot, the ball broke perfectly for Rudy to slot home a simple finish that was eerily similar to Unirea’s first goal in their 4-1 win in October.

The damage could have been worse moments later, only for a linesman’s flag to signal an infringement when a sweeping 35-yard free-kick from Kuzmanovic found its way into the net with McGregor beaten. Mercifully, Matthieu Delpierre had sought to steal a yard and was offside.

A sloppy start then went from bad to worse as Boyd was booked for jumping into defender Osorio. Stuttgart’s Christian Trasch joined him on a caution before Thomson collected a deserved card for a lunge on that man Osorio again — the Ibrox midfielder’s third foul inside 25 minutes.

Smith switched the formation to a more orthodox 4-4-2, pushing McCulloch forward into midfield. But Stuttgart were still on the rise, Cacau going close after Steve Davis was caught in possession. It was to become a recurring theme as the visitors swarmed all over Rangers.

Zdravko Kuzmanovic

Celebration time: Zdravko Kuzmanovic scored Stuttgart's second goal at Ibrox

There was a glimmer of hope after 33 minutes when Boyd fired off target after a Kyle Lafferty flick-on gave him a half-chance on the turn outside the German box.

Was the SPL’s most prolific striker just getting warmed up? Evidently not, as he then missed a sitter from a cross delivered perfectly on to his head by partner Kenny Miller. The man so deadly domestically had fluffed his lines on the European stage.

McCulloch was then forced to tread warily after he was booked by Roberto Rosetti, the man whose red card cost Darren Fletcher a place in last season’s Champions League Final. The Italian wasn’t quite so ‘efficient’ when Trasch, who had already been yellow carded, escaped a second for handball.

Any tangible head of steam that Rangers had generated towards the end of the first half evaporated after the restart. Stuttgart continued to dominate and it took fully 10 minutes for Rangers to get anywhere near the ageing limbs of 40-year-old Lehmann. When they did, Miller was ruled offside following a Davis through ball.

Another pass by the Northern Irishman almost released Miller but the Scot was out-muscled.


Passions running high: German fans set off a flare at Ibrox

Stuttgart made good that escape by scoring just seconds later.

After a swift break down the right, Kuzmanovic launched himself at Rudy’s cross to score with a flying header which had Babbel leaping just as high on the touchline.

It would have been three but for McGregor, who pulled off a great stop from Cacau and then defied belief by using his legs to deflect over from Pogrebnyak. The Russian looked just as disbelieving minutes later when he crashed an effort off the woodwork.

Nacho Novo replaced Miller with 23 minutes left, but this was a game that was already out of the hosts’ hands.

Anyone remember Rangers’ last European win at Ibrox? Six games have elapsed without one. It’s one win now in the last 10 in Europe as financial downsizing bites deep. Surely, however, they should still have mustered far better resistance than this?

The VfB fans taunted Rangers with a chorus of Celtic anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone and a banner about Lloyds TSB. The club’s bankers will now have a major say in what happens in the January transfer window. And we’re not talking about signings.

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