A subtle change in formation at half time from Walter Smith allowed Rangers to dominate the second half but some poor tracking back from Vladimir Weiss and Steven Davis cost them a 1-0 win late on.
Rangers lined up as 4-4-1-1 with El Hadji Diouf just off Kyle Lafferty in attack. Steven Whittaker was on the right of midfield, with Davis moved into the centre and Weiss deployed on the left in the absence of Steven Naismith. Ricky Foster started at right-back in what was otherwise a familiar back four.
Sporting Lisbon lined up as 4-3-3 with Yannick Djalo and Cristiano de Oliveira either side of Helder Postiga in attack. Alberto Zapater was preferred to Andre Santos in midfield three with Maniche and deep-lying playmaker Pedro Mendes.
The opening five minutes saw Rangers start the better of the teams. It was clear from the off the Diouf was to be given a free role and link the play between midfield and attack. He dropped deep and wide and caused the Sporting defence problems all night.
Once the game settled down it was Sporting who controlled the half. The extra man in the centre of midfield was telling and full-backs Joao Pereira and Evaldo looked to get forward at every opportunity. Djalo was also looking dangerous and would often join Postiga to form a front two. Rodriguez was more inclined to stay wide and had a quiet match overall.
Sporting completely dominated possession in the first half and controlled the pace of the game, whereas Rangers’ play was rushed and disjointed. Lafferty failed to effectively hold up the ball and squandered all the chances that did come his way.
The main feature of the first half was the central midfield battle. Davis was expected to dictate play for the home side but wasn’t given any time on the ball and was often caught in possession. The trio of Mendes, Maniche and Zapater bypassed the Rangers midfield with ease.
When Rangers did get forward in the opening stages, they looked most dangerous when Weiss drifted inside, creating space for Sasa Papc to get forward. This threat seemed to be nullified when Djalo and Rodriguez switched sides, due to Rodriguez being more disciplined and taking up a wider position that Djalo. Djalo and Rodriguez switched positions periodically throught the match.
Rangers finished the half by creating a few opportunities but this time down the right. Lafferty had two headers, one from a terrific Whittaker cross that he should have scored and another chance saw Diouf pull wide right and fed by Madjid Bougherra. His run pulled Anderson Polga and Pedro Mendes out of position, Whittaker ran inside to the space created but his shot from the edge of the area was saved well by Rui Patricio.
At half time Walter Smith tweaked his formation ever so slightly which stopped Sporting’s midfield dominance. He moved Whittaker into a slightly more tucked in role and instructed Diouf to concentrate on drifting wide right. This had the consequence that, at times, Rangers were 4-5-1 with Diouf wide right and Whittaker forming a midfield three with Davis and Edu. At other times Diouf would drop into deep central positions and link up with the Rangers central midfield more. Whether Whittaker made wide runs or central runs seemed to depend on the position of the Senegalese international: if Diouf pulled wide Whittaker would drift inside and if Diouf dropped deep and central, Whittaker would go wide. The move also saw Davis take up a more advance role and he and the rest of the Rangers midfield enjoyed more space in possession than they had in the first half.
Rangers instantly looked a better side and created a chance within twenty seconds of the restart. Foster’s long ball was flicked on by Lafferty, Whittaker got in behind the Sporting defence to meet the knock-down but his shot was saved. The urgency of Rangers, along with the tactical change, allowed Rangers to dominate. Sporting looked lost without the ball and were uncertain on how to deal with the movement of Diouf.
Diouf was now covering large areas of the pitch and was even found in his own half starting off attacks. In the sixty-fifth minute Diouf beat Rodriguez and to get to the byline. His cross was turned behind by Pereira and Rangers scored from the resulting corner. Weiss’s inswinging corner was met by the head of Whittaker who had beaten Polga to the ball at the edge of the six yard box. Whittaker is not well known for his heading abilities but it seemed that Polga was more interested in the man than the ball on this occasion.
Sporting then made two substitutions with around fifteen minutes remaining as they pressed for an equaliser. Carlos Saleiro was a straight swap for Rodriguez and Maniche was replaced by Matias Fernandez. Fernandez took up a more advanced role and spent a lot of his time on the left.
Rangers began to sit back and allow Sporting more possession. All Sporting’s attacks were focused down the left with Evaldo getting forward, Fernandez and Zapater drifting wide to join in and Djalo and Saleiro taking turns to do the same. Inevitably, this left huge gaps on the other side of the pitch but this was only taken advantage of in the eighty-eighth minute.
Mendes, Zapater and Djalo formed a triangle and passed the ball around Edu and Davis with ease before Djalo fed Fernandez just outside the Rangers penalty area. He played a short pass to Saleiro and moved into the box. Weiss failed to track the overlap of Pereira as he was sent down the wing by Saleiro and the cross was headed in by an unmarked Fernandez. Bougherra instinctively moved towards his own goal and with neither Edu nor Davis following the Chilean international, he was able to simply nod the ball past Alan McGregor.
It was the first time Pereira had had the ball in an advanced position during the half and the first time Sporting had attacked down that side in the same period. Up until then Davis, Edu and especially Whittaker had done a fantastic job of quelling the threat from their opponents but a couple of moments of laziness turned a fantastic result into one that leaves Rangers needing at least a goal next week in Lisbon.