A RANGERS side reduced to 10 men by the inexplicable ordering off of Daniel Candeias just before half-time may have failed to record the victory over Villarreal they so desperately craved in their penultimate group match.

Yet, the Ibrox club’s hopes of reaching the last 32 of the Europa League remain very much alive regardless of the outcome of what was an exhilarating and incident-packed evening in Govan.

Their task now is clear. Win their final group match in Austria in a fortnight against the Rapid Vienna side they defeated comfortably at home and they will progress to the knockout rounds.

Doing so is, given that their final opponents scored an injury-time winner against Spartak Moscow away in Russia last night to triumph 2-1 and go top of their section, by no means a given.

If Steven Gerrard’s charges can match the display they produced in this outing, however, they have every chance of achieving their objective and going through.

Rangers had Allan McGregor, so often their hero on the continent this season, to thank for keeping them level at times. The Scotland keeper pulled off important saves in both halves. But they were unfortunate not to net themselves.

Their all-round performance was full of heart and guile. It was little wonder they received a standing ovation from their followers at the final whistle. They will travel abroad with high hopes of extending their European adventure.

The Spanish visitors received quite a welcome from the 50,171-strong crowd that had crammed inside the old Glasgow ground before kick-off. But a team which is used to trips to Barcelona and Madrid on domestic duty were never going to be deterred by the hostile environment. They quickly showed their quality.

Villarreal manager Javier Calleja deployed a midfield diamond with Santiago Caseres at its base, Manu Trigueros and Manu Morianses on either side and Pablo Fornals just off the twin strikeforce of Karl Toko Ekambi and Carlos Bacca. His players’ calmness on the ball under pressure was impressive their intelligence in attack.

Yet, when the away team failed to deal with a fairly tame Candeias delivery into their box in the sixth minute it became apparent they were far from infallible. The ball fell to Scott Arfield who snatched at a shot that was easily held by Andres Fernandez. It was, though, an early indication the hosts could score.

Villarreal, too, posed a serious threat going forward. Just three minutes later Morianes charged through the middle before feeding Ekambi to his right. His team mate whipped a ball across the front of goal and Bacca just failed to connect with the net beckoning just yards in front of him.

Morelos had a long-range shot deflected wide off Funes Mori for a corner and Scott Arfield just failed to get on the end of a defence-piercing through ball from James Tavernier. The decibel levels inside the stadium increased significantly as the home crowd sensed their men growing in confidence and taking control.

But the first of a few questionable refereeing decisions soon went against Rangers as Ekambi burst through on goal. Their player and coaching staff looked to linesman Matej Zunic to raise his flag for offside. His arm stayed down. McGregor, though, raced off his line and denied his opponent brilliantly.

Rangers created the best chance of the first-half in the 31st minute. Arfield picked out Worrall who nodded down to his fellow centre half Connor Goldson who was lurking unmarked in the pernalty box. If the opportunity had fallen to Morelos he would almost certainly have buried it. But the defender sclaffed his shot over the crossbar.

McGregor came to the rescue of Rangers once again just two minutes before half-time when Ekambi pounced on a slack crossfield pass from Jon Flanagan and broke through on goal. The goalkeeper closed him down and blocked his shot with his right hand. It was another brilliant and vital save

That near thing should have given Rangers players a lift just before half-time. But the red carding of Candeias, who had been cautioned for fouling Mario Gaspar earlier, for a second bookable offence left them angry and bemused as they headed up the tunnel.

Alfredo Morelos brought down Caseres wide on the right touchline just in front of assistant referee Manuel Vidali. Unable to get out of the way of the floored player, the winger tumbled over him and to the ground.

Jug flashed a yellow card at Candeias, but no red followed it. Confusion reigned. Was it a case of mistaken identity? Or had he booked another player? It was baffling. Eventually, the red came out and the mortified forward trudged off. It was a harsh ruling and a savage blow to a side that had more then held their own for the opening 45 minutes.

It was all too much for one halfwit among the home support who came onto the field to voice his displeasure at Vidali at close quarters. He was quickly apprehended and led away by police. The missiles that were thrown in his direction left him in little doubt what his fellow fans thought of his actions. UEFA disciplinary action is sure to follow

Rangers, understandably given their numerical disadvantage, created little going forward in the second-half and rode their luck at times at the back. McGregor denied Gaspar and Ekambi in quick succession to keep his side on level terms.

Middleton turned into the Villarreal net from a few yards with 13 minutes of regulation time remaining after good work by Tavernier wide on the right. But Zunic ruled that he had been in an offside position when the ball was played in.

Lafferty took over from Morelos shortly after that and immediately tested Fernandez with a dipping strike from the edge of the penalty area. Villarreal went up the park and Ekambi forced another save from McGregor. But the scoreline remained goalless.