Rangers have ended their 12-year absence from the Champions League after coming through a stern play-off qualifier against PSV.
The Glaswegians travelled to Eindhoven mentally bruised from their previous journey abroad in last season’s Europa League final, in which they fell desperately short in a sudden death shootout to Eintracht Frankfurt, passing up the chance to claim automatic Champions League qualification at the time.
They were given a second bite at the cherry tonight, and they duly banished the ghosts from their Sevilla showpiece a few months back, claiming a famous 1-0 victory in front of a packed and raucous Philips Stadion audience, with Antonio Colak profiting from some haphazard PSV defending.
The tension before the goal could have been cut with a knife, it was almost palpable as both clubs pressed and probed in equal measure, attempting to unlock doors in congested spaces. But in the end the deadlock-breaker came through a momentary lapse in concentration, rather than individual brilliance.
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As Andre Ramalho dawdled in possession, Bayern Munich loanee Malik Tillman steamed forward and nicked the ball off the befuddled Brazilian, before calmly teeing up team-mate Colak, who duly slotted home into an empty net and gave Rangers a 3-2 aggregate lead.
If the first leg at Ibrox was breathless and frenetic, this was a more controlled chaos that needed only one goal to decide the outcome. There were certainly key moments from both sides, with Cody Gakpo blazing over from close range in the first half, and Tom Lawrence rattling the bar, but it always felt like one goal would prove decisive to earn a place back at Europe’s premier table.
Colak will naturally steal the headlines for the goal that ended Rangers’ 12-year exhale from UEFA’s flagship competition, but Tillman was the driving force, the attacking linchpin that tied the whole equation together. His innate close control, low centre of gravity and footballing intelligence ensured Rangers were a constant threat when driving forward.
In tight pockets of space, the 20-year-old retained possession and nearly always found his man. He was snapping ankles for fun, turning this way and that, and treating his midfield opponents to a metaphorical merry-go-round — there will almost certainly be some sore heads in the morning.
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But, it wasn’t just the flair and skill that defined Tillman’s night. It was his tenacity. That drive and hunger to press Ramalho and win the ball back emphasised his work rate, a trait that will serve him well under the rigorous demands of coach Giovanni van Bronckhorst.
Already capped twice by the United States, Tillman has flown massively under the radar when considering the nation’s new ‘Golden Generation’, in which the likes of Christian Pulisic, Brenden Aaronson, Giovanni Reyna and Sergino Dest are giving them hope for the future.
His industry was evident tonight, but Tillman has actually likened his skillset more in the realm of Paul Pogba, and the parallels were certainly there tonight when considering what he was doing with the ball at his feet.
“When I play as a No.8 or No.10 [in central midfield], my playing style is similar to Paul Pogba’s,” Tillman told SportBild. “I like him a lot. I really like how he plays. He’s something of a role model for me.”
Described by Julian Nagelsmann as a “top quality young” player, Tillman’s future appears bright. The world’s grandest stage awaits.