Rangers suffer Euro agony
Rangers crashed out of Europe as FBK Kaunas secured a 2-1 victory in qualifying for the Champions League.
By Peter Fraser
Last Updated: 05/08/08 10:14pm
Former Hearts midfielder Linas Pilibaitis sent Rangers crashing out of Europe as he helped FBK Kaunas to a late 2-1 aggregate victory in the second qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League.
Following a goalless draw at Ibrox last week, Rangers faced a difficult night in Lithuania and as Kevin Thomson's opener was cancelled out by Nerijus Radzius and Pilibaitis, last season's Uefa Cup finalists are forced to plan a season without any further European football.
Walter Smith's Rangers side began well in torrential rain and on 33 minutes Nacho Novo squared for Thomson to slot through the legs of Kaunas goalkeeper Marlan Kello.
However, Rangers' lead lasted just 10 minutes as Radzius blasted a swerving 35-yard free-kick past a stunned Allan McGregor to level the tie.
Radzius' strike shortly before the interval clearly boosted Kaunas and the home side enjoyed the better of the second half as McGregor struggled with a series of aerial set plays.
And then in the 87th minute Pilibaitis, who made five appearances while on loan at Hearts in 2007, climbed the highest at a corner to head in and set up a third qualifying round meeting with either Aalborg BK or FK Modrica.
Rangers headed into the game fully aware of what was at stake. Success meant taking a step closer to the £10million jackpot of the Champions League, while failure would mean their European season ending before the start of the Scottish Premier League campaign.
Such a scenario was almost unthinkable for a team who played 19 matches in Europe last season, culminating in defeat to Zenit St Petersburg in the Uefa Cup final.
Smith reverted to the formation he favoured in Europe last year, with the role of lone striker going to summer signing Kenny Miller.
Jean-Claude Darcheville was dropped to the bench following the first game in Glasgow, with Novo introduced to midfield and Christian Dailly playing just in front of the back four.
A steady downpour all day meant the game was played in difficult conditions for both sets of players but Rangers quickly tried to impose themselves on the match.
Novo drove into the box from the right and unleashed a shot which Kello managed to get a fingertip to. Charlie Adam was lurking at the far post but failed to connect.
Thomson then tried his luck with a long-range low shot from midfield which was comfortably smothered by Kello.
The breakthrough came 12 minutes before half-time and it was the visitors who struck when Thomson pounced on a Novo pass and slipped the ball through Kello's legs from eight yards.
Kaunas could have restored parity when Ledesma's free-kick was missed by everyone in the box and curled inches past the post, with McGregor helpless in the Rangers goal.
Instead, it was Radzius who had the net bulging two minutes before the break with a ferocious right-footed free-kick.
Kaunas knew they needed a second goal and Pilibaitis was not too far away after the restart with an effort which whistled past the post, before Marius Cinikas saw his powerful shot crash off the crossbar and out of play.
Rangers were under pressure again when Nukri Manchkava provided a great cross to the back post which was met by Adrian Mrowiec and McGregor did well to hold the close-range downward header.
Smith's men were forced to deal with a late onslaught, with Pascal Mendy dragging a shot narrowly wide from distance as the Lithuanians cranked up the pressure on McGregor.
And he was forced to pluck the ball out of the back of the net with just three minutes to go when Pilibaitis snatched victory with a close-range header after Rangers made a mess of defending a corner from the left.
Meanwhile, SK Brann booked a place in the third qualifying round after eliminating FK Ventspils on away goals following a 2-2 aggregate draw.
With Brann leading 1-0 from the first leg in Norway, Ventspils faced a difficult night but Zurab Menteshashvili restored overall parity after only six minutes.
The midfielder, though, then collected his second booking of the night after only 16 minutes to again leave Ventspils facing an uphill challenge.
However, the 10-man outfit added a second on 44 minutes as striker Vits Rimkus was on target to give Ventspils the aggregate edge.But five minutes after half-time, Brann defender Armann Bjornsson netted the crucial away goal to set up a meeting with Marseille.
|FBK Kaunas||Team Statistics||Rangers|
|1||1st Half Goals||1|
|6||Shots on Target||4|
|8||Shots off Target||4|