There was to be no stumble on the Rock. With what eventually became a purposeful, businesslike stride, Rangers all but took their place in the second qualifying round of the Europa League with a game to spare.
By the end of a perfunctory victory in the sunshine, Steven Gerrard had good reason to feel satisfied at how his players adroitly dealt with this awkward trip to a curious little corner of the footballing world.
The Rangers manager knows you get next to no credit for winning games of this nature in this manner. The skill is making them look easy.
A sticky opening period proved to be no portent of what would follow. By the end of a predictably one-sided affair, a roll call of Rangers players were lining up to inflict further misery on little St Joseph’s.
Goodness knows, the minnows from Gibraltar did their utmost to record the greatest result in their history. By half-time, with the scoreline still blank, their hope of doing so was very much alive.
But as their legs gave way and their spirit sapped, Rangers started doing the simple things better. As their match sharpness grew, the goals rained down. Ryan Jack’s cushioned volley, the outstanding Sheyi Ojo’s delicious finish, a gem of a free-kick from Borna Barisic that definitely crept over the line before Connor Goldson smashed in the rebound to make sure and an Alfredo Morelos header.
Good enough to render next Thursday’s return a mere formality ahead of tougher tasks that will undoubtedly lie in wait.
Morelos’ minor groin issue saw Jermain Defoe start up front, with Jordan Jones and Ojo making their competitive debuts. Joe Aribo and George Edmundson had to be content with spots on the bench.
There can surely be no more stranger settings for football matches on the planet than the tiny Victoria Stadium.
Jammed in between the Rock of Gibraltar and the airport landing strip which doubles as the main road in the only stadium in the British Overseas Territory is about as far removed from Gdansk’s Stadion Energa — the venue for the final on May 27 — as it’s possible to imagine. Every journey has its starting point, though.
Third in their own league last season, St Joseph’s 3-1 aggregate victory over Prishtina of Kosovo in the preliminary round suggested they might offer more resistance than the travelling contingent were bargaining for.
From the off, there was certainly no suggestion of the minnows loading the sandbags and merely attempting to limit the damage. Playing the conditions, they refused to sit off Rangers, believing the bone dry pitch could force an error from their opponents.
Rangers’ first opening actually came as St Joseph’s threatened. Having won the ball back on the edge of their own box, Defoe’s deft flick released Ojo on the halfway line. Striding forward, the on-loan Liverpool man’s hopes of a debut goal were ended by a crunching sliding block by Daniel Guerrero.
If Ojo’s skill and strength were the main positives for Gerrard in the opening exchanges, the Rangers manager would have been irked at Barisic’s lack of end product. Twice the Croatian beat his man to open up the penalty box. Twice his cross lacked all direction.
Nikola Katic, his compatriot, was guilty of daydreaming while defending Cristian Pecci’s deep free-kick and Federico Villar was half a yard shy of a free header at goal.
Predictably, Rangers dominated the play. Yet gilt-edged chances initially proved hard to come by.
Jack and Ojo worked Francisco Vera in the St Joseph’s goal with speculative strikes, while Defoe’s dancing feet allowed him to flash a shot across the face of goal.
The growing sense of frustration among the visitors at an early goal failing to materialise grew when Defoe was booked for catching Pecci as he cleared his lines. The St Joseph’s man was also carded for a crude foul on Ojo.
Ojo spurned the best opening of the first period by allowing Vera to stoop to block his effort after being played in by Defoe.
An uninspiring first half from Rangers’ perspective concluded with Glen Kamara finding the side-netting with a low drive before Steven Davis failed to hit the target after a second ball had spun his way. Gerrard retreated to the dressing room with much on his mind.
Ojo might well have settled the nerves two minutes after the restart. Having drawn a foul on the edge of the area to win a free-kick, he stretched to meet James Tavernier’s cross but failed to guide it onto the target.
Vera’s goal was beginning to live a charmed life, though. And with their next charge, Gerrard’s men edged ahead.
Jack started and finished the move. Having pushed the ball wide to Barisic, he continued his run. This time the Croatian’s delivery was true. First time on the volley, Jack swept the ball into the far corner with his right foot.
The only question was whether Rangers could wrap up the tie on the night. We soon had our answer. Jones came within a hair’s breadth of a quick second with a drive that had power but not quite the accuracy.
Ojo showed him how it’s done with a sumptuous finish on 56 minutes. Taking the ball on his left foot just inside the box, he used the defender as a shield before executing an inch-perfect clip into the far corner which left Vera without a prayer.
Job done, and with St Joseph’s visibly wilting, Morelos and Aribo replaced Defoe and Jack.
Only the reflexes of Vera denied Ojo his second and Rangers their third, but by now it was a procession.
Barisic gave the scoreline a more accurate sheen with a fine free-kick on 68 minutes.
The Croatian feared Vera had denied him a rare goal after the keeper clawed the ball out. Replays, however, showed the ball had crossed the line, rendering Goldson’s tap-in irrelevant.
Morelos prowled with intent and converted Tavernier’s cross with his head to claim his side’s fourth with 13 minutes remaining.
Job done. Tie over.