Rangers huffed and puffed against a mediocre Maribor side but failed to take enough of their chances to progress. Maribor sat behind the ball for most of the ninety minutes and hit Rangers with a sucker-punch early in the second half, which proved decisive in the outcome of the tie.
Ally McCoist was without Lee McCulloch, Davie Weir, Sasa Papac, Jordan McMillan and Kyle Bartley through injury, and was also missing Steven Naismith and Steven Whittaker through suspension. As well as this, Ross Perry was named on the bench, meaning that Carlos Bocanegra, Maurice Edu and Kirk Broadfoot were restored to the starting line up as McCoist demonstrated his desire to field experience over youth. They lined up in their usual 4-4-1-1 formation.
Maribor made one change from the 2-1 victory in Slovenia, Ales Mejac missed out and was replaced by Nejc Potokar at right-back. They lined up in a 4-4-2 formation with Zelko Filipovic sitting just ahead of the back four and Dalibor Volas dropping off Rober Beric in attack. When in possession, the wide men of Maribor would come inside – like Villarreal’s interiores – and overload the central areas.
With a first-leg lead to protect, it was no surprise that Maribor’s strategy was to sit as many men behind the ball as possible while refusing to pressure their opponents unless they moved past the halfway line.
Rangers, on the other hand, looked to pass the ball out from the back – in a similar fashion to the win in Inverness – with Steven Davis the player dropping to collect the ball from the centre-backs. And just like that match in the Highlands, Rangers lacked a cutting edge in front of goal
Their approach was to get Gregg Wylde on the ball as much as possible and two of his crosses in the first twenty minutes should have been converted. Kyle Lafferty failed to commit himself to the first in the seventh minute, and Edu later sent his free header straight into the arms of Jasmin Handanovic.
Added to this, Rangers enjoyed a succession of corners but failed to take advantage of Maribor’s vulnerability in these situations.
Rangers’ injury woes were added to when Perry replaced Lee Wallace around five minutes before half-time. The enforced change meant that Bocanegra was moved to the left-back and from that point on, Rangers missed the thrust Wallace had provided from that position and, relatedly, the support and overlap for Wylde.
Nikica Jelavic and Lafferty dovetailed throughout the first half, linked up well at times and between them created another two excellent opportunities that Lafferty squandered, one of which was a one-on-one with the goalkeeper on the stroke of half-time.
Whereas most of Rangers’ play in the first half was focused through Wylde on the left, two chances early in the second half were created down the right, both involving Kirk Broadfoot, which Lafferty and Davis failed to trouble Handanovic with.
Rangers were then made to regret their missed chances when Volas opened the scoring on fifty-five minutes.
The few times Maribor found themselves in possession in advanced positions, their most dangerous player was Dejan Mezga – one of the interiors – who would start wide, drift inside to collect the ball and beat players. He was fed half way inside the Rangers half and managed to draw three Rangers players towards him before slipping the ball to Aleds Mertelj. The twenty-four year old then took advantage of the space afforded to him by the holdup play of Mezga and drove at the Rangers defence before finding Volas, who finished in the bottom corner.
If Maribor were not ultra-defensive before, a 1-0 lead (and 3-1 aggregate lead) meant that they were now, and with as many time-wasting tactics as possible thrown in.
Rangers panicked for a short spell but then soon settled into their passing that had brought about many opportunities until then.
One player who had been largely ineffective was Juan Manuel Ortiz and he was replaced by David Healy with just over twenty-minutes remaining. Lafferty was moved out to the right but increasingly found himself in central positions alongside Jelavic and Healy as the match entered its final stages.
Rangers did manage to pull a goal back, when Bocanegra bundled in a Wylde corner, but a late rally couldn’t save their European blushes. This time, of the chances created, Healy was the most culpable as he displayed a severe lack of composure when one-on-one with Handanovic.
McCoist’s tactics are hard to argue with: His side created enough chances to win two or three Europa League ties, they just failed to take them.
Rangers looked to get the ball wide to Wylde and hit their two large strikers with early crosses. As well as this, Lafferty and Jelavic would take turns to drop deep and wide, link play and draw defenders out of position.
All this worked, it was the finishing that let them down.
In saying that, it wasn’t the most interesting match tactically. Maribor sat ten men behind the ball in attempt to stifle Rangers. It didn’t work as Rangers carved out several clear-cut opportunities. Their Euro exit must be blamed on poor finishing, rather than a fantastic defensive performance from Maribor.