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 Estadio 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 Ibrox great Ally McCoist.
But Gers switched off in the final 13 minutes and paid the price as Rafa Silva netted before substitute Darwin Nunez fired home an injury-time equaliser.
The Light Blues fell behind just 60 seconds in when Connor Goldson put through his own net, but the game looked to have turned dramatically in their favour when former Manchester City defender Nicolas Otamendi was sent off.
Gerrard watched with delight as his team grabbed a quick-fire double thanks to Diogo Goncalves’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 which would have been Benfica’s first ever Europa League defeat at home, the Light Blues remain well placed to reach the last 16, sitting level with the Portuguese giants at the top of Group D on seven points.
As Benfica’s pet bird of prey did its traditional swoop around the Stadium of Light before kick-off, Gers were hoping to match the levels that saw them soar to wins over the Reds’ domestic rivals Porto and Braga in last year’s competition.
Jorge Jesus opted to rest top scorers Nunez and Luca Waldschmidt but named ex-Spurs defender Jan Vertonghen and Otamendi at the heart of his defence.
Gers 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 line-up, while Filip Helander came in for a first start of the group stage.
But 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 Ibrox men and should have added another after a lightning breakaway. Brazil international Everton led the charge but Pizzi dragged wide.
It looked as though Rangers were in for a long night as their hosts 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’ ball over the top and turned round to find referee Jesus Gil Manzano flashing red.
Maestro Davis now had the space he needed to clip the Eagles’ wings with his killer passes and six minutes later he orchestrated the equaliser, sliding a sublime ball in behind for James Tavernier as the Gers kipper came in off his flank.
The ball was fizzed across goal, catching out the hapless Goncalves who fired into his own net.
If the first two goals were on the ugly side, the next just 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 only had to wait six minutes into the second half to net 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 of 21 European strikes.
Benfica threw on Nunez 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 substitute Nunez rounded McGregor to tee up Silva.
It appeared Gers would see out the final stages but, with just moments remaining, Waldschmidt spotted a gap in Gerrard’s defence and Nunez raced through to snatch a point.
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