Resilient Rangers prevailed in an absorbing Europa League thriller with Real Betis to top the group and progress to the competition’s last 16.
The Scottish Premiership side thundered into the lead thanks to a belting finish from Abdallah Sima, before Juan Miranda’s arrowed strike almost immediately restored parity for the Spanish hosts.
After withstanding severe pressure in Seville, Cyriel Dessers came alive to restore the visitors’ lead, but another equaliser from Ayoze Perez capped an incredible first half.
With Sparta Prague strolling to victory against Aris Limassol, Philippe Clement knew his side needed a winner, which came with 12 minutes left as substitute Kemar Roofe forced the ball home to spark celebratory scenes.
The cauldron of the Estadio Benito Villamarin could easily have daunted a Rangers side that knew victory was a likely necessity, but the bold visitors cut through the noise in an instant to strike first.
Sima has shown ruthlessness like no other player in blue this season, and did so again by thumping the ball out of the path of a flailing Dessers to send the travelling support wild.
Their celebrations would be curtailed in stunning fashion, though, as Betis immediately reminded Rangers of their quality when Miranda’s lashed finished threatened to burst the side-netting.
Now, Rangers were rattled. Ben Davies had to block bravely before Jack Butland was called into action with two stunning saves – the second of which tipped Andres Guardado’s thunderbolt crashing onto the crossbar.
Just as it looked as if Clement’s side were becoming swamped, two of their struggling signings combined to push against the pressure.
Jose Cifuentes’ outrageous reverse pass found Dessers, who still had so much to do. The forward who has frustrated Rangers fans skipped past two Betis bodies and rolled the ball through the legs of Rui Silva.
The hosts would soon retort in style again. Isco, who has been rejuvenated to his gracious best, danced on the edge of the box before feeding Perez. One gorgeous sweep of a boot later and this game of madness was once again level.
The second half started with another whack of the woodwork as Assane Diao rose at a corner to bounce one off the bar.
Once the imposing stadium had been silenced when VAR prevented Betis from taking the lead for the first time, there was a sense that Rangers would have one more chance to save their status in the competition.
It was far from pretty, but Rabbi Matondo’s fresh air swing allowed the ball to roll towards Roofe, who was in the right place at right time to rubberstamp Rangers’ ticket to the last 16.
It was in Seville that Rangers would fall just short in their inspired Europa League final run. And, in the 19 months that have followed, the Ibrox side have too often lacked the qualities that saw them shock the continent.
They may have been in a different stadium, but there was almost a symbolic banishing of the ghosts as the men in blue conjured the spirit of the side as they came out on top of a truly magnetic contest.
Their backs were against the wall on so many occasions, face-to-face with a top side in testing conditions. Amid the madness, Rangers roared.
So much has been made of the summer’s seemingly scattergun recruitment, but in perhaps their biggest game of the season, Dessers, Cifuentes, Sterling and others stood up to the task.
With a place in the last 16 secured in electrifying fashion, they must now carry momentum into not only the title race, but more pressingly, Sunday’s cup final.
If Clement’s men can show the kind of unity and quality they displayed on Spanish soil, it’s hard to see the first silverware of the season heading anywhere but Govan.
Real Betis head coach Manuel Pellegrini: “I am not surprised [by the defeat] because Rangers are a big team that used to play in the Champions League, they play in Europe, they need to win every game in the league.
“Unfortunately for us, all the chances that we had to score more goals we couldn’t do it, so for me the defeat was not a surprise.”
Rangers manager Philippe Clement: “I am really proud of the team. I want to see a team of winners that never give up, where everybody wants to do their job and that is what they did today. They played a big game.
“I am lucky that I have had some good nights already. It will be one of the great nights but the bad thing about me is that I am always thinking about the next one.
“This is the first time that I have felt this way with the team and I am really happy with evolution they are making, mentally, physically, tactically. This needs to be a reference for the rest of the season.”
Rangers can now park continental concerns until March and focus on domestic competition, with Sunday’s Viaplay Cup final with Aberdeen (15:00) the first port of call.