Alfredo Morelos wrote his name into the Rangers record books but his 22nd European goal was not enough to daze 10-man Benfica after a 3-3 draw at the Estádio da Luz.
The Colombian was celebrating as he put Steven Gerrard’s team 3-1 up in Lisbon, moving him past the club benchmark previously set by Ally McCoist. But Rangers switched off in the final 13 minutes and paid the price as Rafa Silva scored before the substitute Darwin Núñez fired an injury-time equaliser.
The visitors fell behind only 60 seconds in when Connor Goldson put through his own net, but the game looked to have turned dramatically in their favour when the former Manchester City defender Nicolás Otamendi was sent off.
Gerrard watched with delight as his team grabbed a quick-fire double thanks to Diogo Gonçalves’s own goal and a Glen Kamara strike, with Morelos adding his record-breaking third just after the break. But despite letting slip a win that would have been Benfica’s first ever Europa League defeat at home, Rangers remain well placed to reach the last 16, sitting level with the Portuguese side at the top of Group D on seven points.
The Benfica manager, Jorge Jesus, opted to rest his top scorers, Núñez and Luca Waldschmidt, but he named the former Spurs defender Jan Vertonghen and Otamendi at the heart of his defence. Gerrard took a safety-first approach in midfield as the steady hands of Steven Davis, Ryan Jack and Kamara were all given a rare run-out in the same starting lineup, while Filip Helander came in for a first start of the group stage.
However it was a nightmare start for the big Swede and his partner, Goldson, as Benfica struck within seconds. Helander had a clearance blocked then swung at fresh air as the ball came down. Before he knew what had happened Silva whipped away possession, with his cut-back taking an unfortunate bounce off Goldson’s shin into Allan McGregor’s net.
The hosts swarmed all over the visitors and should have added another after a lightning breakaway. The Brazil international Everton led the charge but Pizzi dragged wide.
It looked as if Rangers were in for a long night as Benfica popped the ball about with ease – but then came the blunder from Otamendi which turned the game on its head. The Argentinian was forced to trip Ryan Kent as the winger burst clear from Davis’s ball over the top and turned round to find the referee, Jesús Gil Manzano, flashing red.
Davis now had the space he needed and six minutes later he orchestrated the equaliser, sliding a sublime ball in behind for James Tavernier as the Rangers captain came in off his flank. The ball was fizzed across goal, catching out the hapless Gonçalves who fired into his own net.
If the first two goals were on the ugly side, the next only a minute later was a thing of pure beauty. Rangers worked the ball from their own box out to Morelos on the right flank. The Colombian’s cross-field pass found Kamara and, with Borna Barisic’s run down the left opening up space, the Finn had all the time he needed to drill past Odysseas Vlachodimos at the near post.
Joe Aribo saw a header squirm wide from a delicious Barisic cross, while Vertonghen had to make a last-ditch tackle to deny Morelos just before the break. But the striker had to wait only six minutes into the second half to score his historic goal as Tavernier ghosted down the right before laying the ball on a plate at the back post for Morelos to move past McCoist’s record.
Benfica threw on Núñez and Waldschmidt in the hope of turning things around. They got a let-off when Kent struck the post but found the lifeline they longed for with 13 minutes left when Núñez rounded McGregor to tee up Silva.
It appeared Rangers would see out the final stages but, with moments remaining, Waldschmidt spotted a gap in their defence and Núñez raced through to snatch a point.