Villarreal CF's remarkable run in the UEFA Champions League will continue to the quarter-finals after stand-in captain Rodolfo Arruabarrena's strike ensured the Spanish debutants progress on away goals.
After a 2-2 draw at Ibrox a fortnight ago, Peter Løvenkrands put Rangers in front for the first time in the tie just 12 minutes into the return at El Madrigal. However, a clever half-time change by coach Manuel Pellegrini and the introduction of two substitutes swung the match in the home team's favour. Just four minutes after the break, Arruabarrena scored the decisive goal and Villarreal sit proudly in the last eight.
Rangers started the game outstandingly. While there had been a heavy expectation the Scottish champions would try to contain Villarreal before counterattacking, an impression aided by their 4-4-1-1 formation, the truth was quite different. Alex McLeish's side did press and harry their hosts when not in possession but when they won the ball back, Rangers pushed forward at speed and in numbers. The first evidence that the tactic was bearing fruit came as early as the sixth minute.
Chris Burke found space, pushed forward and slipped a cute pass to Løvenkrands who in turn set up Thomas Buffel. The Belgian international struck a firm right-footed shot which caused Sebastián Viera, celebrating his 23rd birthday, to dive and palm away for a corner. The rhythm of the match was marked by the crisp, confident and often inventive nature of the visitors' play. Villarreal's midfield organisers, Josico and Marcos Senna, were under constant pressure.
To the backdrop of 4,000 noisy travelling fans, the Rangers players noticeably rose in confidence. Josico held possession too long in search of a meaningful pass and was closed down by Barry Ferguson and Løvenkrands. He gave the ball away, and it was swiftly moved to Buffel whose pass offered a 50-50 race between Ferguson and the Villarreal keeper. The Scot just failed to reach it but Viera's brave parry simply teed the ball up for Løvenkrands to slot right-footed into the empty net.
The only real difficulty Rangers encountered was their forceful approach whenever Villarreal mounted a threat. By the 23rd minute, both Rangers full-backs, Ian Murray and Alan Hutton, had been booked – but Villarreal were unable to increase the pressure on the away defence. Not until the 41st minute did Pellegrini's normally robust and streetwise side create a chance of merit. But when they did they should have equalised.
Buffel's flick on the edge of the penalty box was too flamboyant and it allowed the outstanding centre-half Gonzalo Rodríguez to surge out of defence and split the Rangers team with a low pass that put Diego Forlán one on one with the Rangers goalkeeper. Ronald Waterreus held steady though and stuck out his right leg to prevent the Uruguayan from converting the wonderful opportunity.
Pellegrini reacted at half-time by introducing the pace of Héctor Font and Guillermo Franco and playing three at the back when in possession. Villarreal flooded forward and within four minutes they were rewarded. Juan Román Riquelme produced a divine reverse pass for Forlán to scurry into the box and his raking cross was hammered home at the far post by Arruabarrena.
The tempo swung back in favour of the hosts but Sotirios Kyrgiakos did have a clear view of goal following Ferguson's 53rd-minute free-kick, however his shot soared over the bar. And Waterreus kept Rangers in the tie with a brilliant 65th-minute save when Forlán's pass allowed Franco a free volley. Rangers kept pushing forward, but could not find the goal they needed so Villarreal progress to Friday's quarter-final draw, although Arruabarrena, Josico and Alessio Tacchinardi were booked and will be suspended for the first leg.