The Republic of Bashkortostan now beckons for Steven Gerrard’s Rangers. A 4,600-mile round trip to face Ufa deep inside Russia will be the final hurdle to clear on this odyssey towards the Europa League group stage.
It had previously wound its way through Macedonia and Croatia before reaching Slovenia on Thursday night. On a tense, occasionally fraught, evening inside the Ljudski vrt Stadium, a defence backed by the evergreen Allan McGregor held firm. A third successive away clean sheet in this competition was the most hard-won.
Connor Goldson had marshalled the back-line superbly before conceding a 90th minute spot-kick for a foul on Luka Zahovic. That could have been the cue for injury-time panic, but McGregor brilliantly blocked the penalty from Marcos Tavares to end any doubts about their progression.
It wasn’t particularly pretty but there was much to admire in the professionalism, organisation and sheer doggedness shown by Rangers at a ground that has so often been the graveyard for Scottish dreams. Since the Ibrox club lost here back in 2011, Maribor have seen off Celtic, Hibs and Aberdeen in European competition. Ending that curse required Gerrard’s side to draw upon all the attributes within their armoury.
Ultimately, the attacking damage they inflicted in a terrific second-half display at Ibrox seven days previously proved too substantial. That cleared the stage for the resilience shown here as Gerrard’s emerging team took another important step in their development.
Ufa’s narrow victory over Progres Niederkorn a couple of hours earlier denied Rangers the most poetic of play-off round challenges. Instead, they will be heading two hours east of Moscow, to the city where Rudolf Nureyev grew up.
Gerrard would doubtless have accepted facing a team sixth in the embryonic Russian league table at this stage. Far more daunting opponents from Europe’s elite nations have been avoided.
A first leg at Ibrox next Thursday provides an opportunity to try and assemble an advantage, but the return match the following week will still present obvious logistical problems. -DAILYMAIL