Steven Gerrard lost his first European game at Ibrox despite a spirited second-half showing from Rangers. A VAR penalty call was calmly converted by Bayer Leverkusen’s captain Kai Havertz before Charles Aránguiz doubled the Bundesliga side’s advantage midway through the second period.
Rangers responded swiftly when George Edmundson atoned for giving away the penalty with a header but there was no late reprieve for the Ibrox side ahead of next week’s closed-doors return leg, with Leon Bailey restoring Leverkusen’s two-goal cushion when he scored in the final stages of the game.
The tone for the game was set in the opening minute from Leverkusen’s kick-off. The German side retained possession for the full opening 60 seconds, a portent of how much of the game was to play out with the German side content to adopt a patient, probing approach.
They almost found an opening within the opening minutes when Kerem Demirbay’s cross was met by Karim Bellarabi and although the volley was too wild and high to trouble Rangers goalkeeper Allan McGregor, it was indicative of the pattern of the evening. Demirbay was the catalyst for another Leverkusen incursion shortly after when he fired a raking ball low and hard across Rangers’ six-yard box that found no takers.
On an evening when they had to chase shadows there was a brief note of encouragement for Rangers when Alfredo Morelos showed an elegant touch to lift a speculative long ball over the top down but Aleksandar Dragovic read the situation before the Colombian, who has scored just once since the turn of the year, was able to exploit the situation.
Eight minutes before the interval, Leverkusen took the lead when VAR was used to penalise the defender Edmundson for the use of a hand in the box from Aránguiz’s cross. Like many decisions made using the technology this season it seemed harsh, but in keeping with the letter of the law. Ibrox whistled and jeered its fury but Havertz kept his head, the 20-year-old Leverkusen captain drilling a low, composed effort down the middle of the goal after watching McGregor’s movements in the run-up.
Rangers were further irked a minute later when a James Tavernier cross in to the box came off the back of Jonathan Tah. The home support screamed for a penalty of their own, though more in hope than expectation.
The move came to nothing but it had the effect of sparking some life into the Ibrox side. Florian Kamberi was introduced at the expense of the anonymous Joe Aribo as Rangers changed their shape in an attempt to ask questions of their own.
They were almost rewarded instantly as they forced two decent openings in quick succession. The first came when Ryan Kent lashed the ball towards the back post where Morelos connected but pushed the chance wide. Soon after the striker collected from Tavernier but was denied by Lukas Hradecky’s save.
Kamberi sustained the momentum when he nicked the ball inside the box and slid it in to the path of Morelos but an excellent sliding tackle from Tah denied him a chance. That made Leverkusen’s crucial second goal all the more galling. Steven Davis had been forced into heading an effort from Aránguiz off the line but it proved to be simply a delay. Less than a minute later a hooked clearance from Tavernier was the perfect height for Aránguiz to get his body over the ball and volley an effort past the motionless McGregor.
To Rangers’ credit, they found a reply. Tavernier’s corner to the back post was met by the unmarked Edmundson who rose to power his header into the net. There was to be no last hurrah, however. Leverkusen substitute Bailey killed off Rangers’ resistance when he curled in a third goal two minutes from time.