Rangers booked their spot in the Viaplay Cup Final against rivals Celtic after substitute Kemar Roofe’s first goal of the season broke Aberdeen’s stubborn resistance in an extra-time thriller at Hampden Park.
The Jamaican striker climbed off the bench to convert fellow substitute Scott Wright’s low cross in the 94th minute to force the winner and complete the turnaround.
Aberdeen led through Bojan Miovski’s clever finish in the first-half, but Ryan Jack’s deflected strike had levelled the tie before Dons captain Anthony Stewart was sent off for upending Fashion Sakala late in regulation time.
The atmosphere inside the stadium was palpable as both sides emerged from the tunnel. Flares and blue and red smoke bombs enveloped the Hampden pitch as referee Nick Walsh got proceedings underway.
Rangers were without Croatian talisman Antonio Colak who took up his seat in the stands after failing to recover in time from an injury picked up on his comeback game against Dundee United last weekend. That meant Alfredo Morelos was tasked with leading the line alongside Fashion Sakala, with Michael Beale otherwise naming a settled starting line-up.
The Ibrox club posed an early threat and almost opened the scoring after just three minutes. James Tavernier’s pinpoint cross was met in the air by Sakala but the Zambian forward was left stunned to watch his header beat the outstretched Kelle Roos before rattling the left-hand post.
Aberdeen settled into the match after that early scare with Luis ‘Duk’ Lopes causing problems down the left flank. The Dons did have the ball in the net after 15 minutes when Bojan Miovski squeezed the ball high past Allan McGregor from a tight angle after latching onto Leighton Clarkson’s through ball, but the Macedonian international was guilty of beginning his run too early and the goal was ruled out by VAR for offside.
Those warning signs weren’t heeded by the Gers backline as the North East outfit continue to pile on the pressure. Matty Kennedy’s delivery into the box fell unexpectedly to captain Anthony Stewart, who forced the ball into Duk’s path but the Portuguese attacker scuffed his effort from close range and Connor Goldson managed to knock it behind for a corner.
At the opposite end, the lively Sakala - Rangers main goal threat during the first-half - was posing problems with his clever movement. He curled a powerful strike narrowly over the crossbar on 21 minutes.
Morelos was next to try his luck for Rangers after referee Walsh allowed play to continue when Stewart wiped out Ryan Kent, but the Colombian frontman screwed his shot wide of the target. Moments later, Kent tested Roos in the Aberdeen goal with a rasping 25-yard drive but the Dons stopper was equal to his strike and Sakala blazed his follow-up attempt over the top.
Games between these two clubs rarely pass without incident and talking points. On 36 minutes, Morelos snuck in unmarked at the back post to connect with Jack’s cross but Roos got down well at his near post to save with his feet. Morelos protested with the linesman that the ball had crossed the line but television replays confirmed that not to be the case.
After a scintillating start, the deadlock was eventually broken five minutes later and it was one the Gers defence will not want to watch back. Barisic was caught napping after failing to react to a hopeful cross-field pass and the Croatian allowed Kennedy time to send a dangerous ball across the six-yard box. Ben Davies failed to cut out the winger’s delivery and the ball dropped kindly for Miosvki, who cooly side-footed high past McGregor into the roof of the net.
The decibles inside the bowl of the national stadium reached new levels as the opening 45 minutes drew to a close. The second half began at a frantic pace, with Rangers immediately going in search of an equaliser from the outset. Ryan Jack wasted a good opportunity from the edge of the box after Malik Tillman raced into the penalty area before laying the ball off for the midfielder, who skied his shot harmlessly over the bar.
Rangers continued to lay siege on the Aberdeen goal and their persistance paid off just beyond the hour mark. Morelos created some space on the edge of the box before setting up Jack who fired a first-time shot goalwards. The ball took a wicked deflection off sliding Celtic loanee Liam Scales to wrong-foot Roos and find it’s way into the bottom corner.
Aberdeen, however, didn’t go away and on loan Liverpool midfielder Clarkson cracked the base of McGregor’s right-hand with a low strike on 72 minutes. Kennedy was slow to react to the re-bound and failed to test the veteran keeper.
That forced Gers boss Beale into a double substitution with fit-again striker Kemar Roofe and midfielder Glen Kamara entering the fray in place of Morelos and Tillman. Both sides were allowed a breather with seven minutes remaining when play was halted due to a head knock sustained by Ylber Ramadani. After being checked over by the club’s medical staff, the Albanian was deemed fit enough to continue.
John Lundstram then had an effort from distance which was comfortably saved by Roos before Miovski mis-cued a shot after neat build-up play by the Dons. The game-changing moment came in the third of eight added minutes in stoppage time when Anthony Stewart lunged into a challenge on the advancing Sakala, giving referee Walsh no option but to reach straight for a red card. The tackle was deemed as serious foul play by VAR.
As the clock ticked down, Kent thought he had won the match for Rangers right at the death but the winger watched on as his long-range effort sailed agonisingly wide of the target and the tie went to extra-time.
Aberdeen striker Christian Ramirez and Rangers winger Scott Wright were introduced by both managers. The Glasgow giants carved out the first attempt on goal when Tavernier’s deflected shot clipped the top of the crossbar.
Rangers’ man advantage started to become evidently clear as the Pittodrie side began to tire on the heavy playing surface. The defining moment arrived in the 94th minute when the fresh legs of Wright saw him dance his way into the box before picking out the unmarked Roofe, who produced a composed finish past Roos.
The Dons weren’t prepared to give in without a fight and Jonny Hayes’ swerving effort from distance had McGregor scrambling across to keep it out. Scales then made an important block to deny Sakala from hitting the target as a patched up Aberdeen backline defended tenaciously.
As the second half of extra-time wore on, Roofe was forced off with yet another injury after landing awkwardly on his right shoulder under Graeme Shinnie’s challenge. Youngster Charlie McCann was given a late run out.
With the Aberdeen players now completely out on their feet, the large travelling support tried to rally their side for one final push. Kennedy’s free-kick from just over the halfway line wasn’t cleared. The ball fell to Scales at the back post and the defender’s half-volley was saved by McGregor.
And with that, time had run out for Jim Goodwin’s men as opposite number Michael Beale maintained his unbeaten start as Rangers manager and set up a winner takes all clash with city rivals Celtic on February 26.
Rangers (4-2-3-1): McGregor, Tavernier, Lundstram (Wright; 90), Goldson, Jack, Kent, Morelos (Roofe; 73) (McCann; 117), Davies, Sakala (Arfield; 105), Barisic (Devine; 105), Tillman (Kamara; 73)
Unused: McLaughlin (GK), King, Lowry
Aberdeen (4-2-3-1): Roos, McCrorie, Scales, Stewart, Shinnie (Watkins; 117), Miovski (Ramirez; 90), Lopes (Hayes; 62), Ramadani, Clarkson (Barron; 74), Coulson, Kennedy
Unused: Lewis (GK), Besuijen, Myslovic, Duncan, Richardson
Referee: Nick Walsh
GlasgowWorld Man of the Match: Ryan Jack (Rangers)