Steven Gerrard challenges Ryan Kent Rangers as he locates his unknown Braga hero
Overjoyed Steven Gerrard threw a paternal arm around his players and told them that they made him proud.
The Rangers boss has amassed praise on his team for their heroes in Braga as they secured an extraordinary 1-0 victory and passage in the last 16 of the Europa League.
Ryan Kent’s second half gave the Light Blues a 4-2 aggregate victory when they became the first Scots since Celtic against Blackburn in 2002 won both stages of a knockout round in Europe.
The Rangers are tied in Nyon, although Gerrard refuses to consider taking on Neil Lennon’s team at this stage if they see Copenhagen tonight.
Gerrard has taken a verbal stick for his players in the past few weeks as internal waste has almost cost them a chance to win the Premiership this season.
But he has done nothing but pay tributes on them in Portugal for an extraordinary victory and performance of immense tactical nous, even if Ianis Hagi has missed his sixth free kick from the 10 assigned this season.
Gerrard said: “The players made the game plan and gave it to the fans and the club.
“For now, it’s about enjoying the win against Braga. We look forward to the draw on Friday and will be proud of whoever we run into.
“The players deserve all the praise that comes to them as they have taken a little in the past few weeks.
“It was a big change for a man out of control. They also went out and injured a really good team on the ball, so the job is done.
“I am very happy. The players had to make the maximum effort.
“We have played against
a high-level opposition, which is probably the best form in which it has been present for some time.
“They have a really bright young manager who knows what he’s doing while he overtook their group in the Europa League and was the top scorer.
“However, my players have been exceptional for a man in both games. I am really proud of them. “
Gerrard took one of the biggest bets of his nascent managerial career when he dropped Niko Katic and replaced rookie George Edmundson.
He was rewarded with an exceptional defensive performance when the 21-year-old hooked up with Connor Goldson and just smelled the guests.
Gerrard added: “Everyone has committed themselves to the defensive form and what was needed tonight. Against the best players and one of the best teams, you can’t do it with one unit.
“Allan McGregor was a great artist for us – I wouldn’t have sat here in this competition if it wasn’t for him.
“The collaboration of the two central backrests was also impeccable. George has been deeply involved but there is a way to experience Europe.
“At some point a manager has to trust you, whatever the challenge is. He came forward and imagined it and delivered with the help of Connor, who played as a captain, a leader.
“He’s someone who has had a bit of a stick since the weekend in St Johnstone, along with all of us, so going back and publishing that kind of performance was great.
“Connor was exceptional and he and George were supported by two full-backs on both sides who clashed with some really dangerous and first-class operators.
“The rear five were exceptional, shielded from the three in front of them. From a defensive point of view the game plan was delivered by them, so they deserve credit. “
Kent scored his first goal in Europe for the Rangers, giving them a victory that will increase the country’s UEFA coefficient and cash in his club with around £ 3 million in revenue.
In the first half he lost a team, but remained composed to win the winner in a game in which Flo Kamberi also shone on his first start in Europe.
Gerrard added: “We need that level of Ryan contribution. Recently there have been many opinions about Ryan about what kind of shape it is on.
“But it offered a great time for us and he could have had two.
“People do not give him the merit he deserves in terms of the amount of race he does for us, but he came great and scored the important goal.
“Hopefully this will make his trust in the world of good because there will be times when people are not happy with him and he is a bit up and down.
“It’s part of being a footballer in a high-level club, but some of the opinions I read recently about Ryan are ridiculous. He is the best player.
“Flo also did a really disinterested job for the team.
“Sometimes when you’re alone in Europe you have to sacrifice yourself. You have to run hard and lift the ball for us to create dangerous situations.
“That was probably the biggest game Flo played and I was really happy for him. He came in to replace Alfredo and he deserved to play. “
Kent, Kamberi and Hagi took all the super opportunities to score in the first half, but the Rangers remained composed after the break and the former
Liverpool star Kent collected the reward.
Gerrard added: “Worried about missed opportunities? When you have such moments, you will always think of going halfway.
“But the game came out exactly as we thought in terms of Braga playing five and moving the ball very quickly.
“What I was really happy with was that we were carrying a threat when the ball was shot. I was still confident that more opportunities would come.
“Braga beat Porto in a cup final, beat Sporting Lisbon, Benfica and Wolves. They are a high class opposition and we have beaten them twice in a week. “
Gerrard’s mind is already fixed on the complicated Scottish Cup tie at Tynecastle on Saturday night.
He said: “The most important thing now is that we have to back up this performance and go to Hearts and qualify for another competition. This is the priority. “