It is the kick that has changed the course of a campaign, and perhaps a career. Ianis Hagi missed the target and hasn’t hit the heights since. He is, it seems, paying the penalty.

A loan move to Deportivo Alaves was designed to restore Hagi’s confidence and his physical condition, to allow him to recapture the love of the game that had turned sour during difficult months working with Michael Beale. Hagi did not want to leave Rangers, but he felt he had to. Once again, he seemingly finds himself at a crossroads.

It has been a season of just 22 appearances and only two goals, both of which came in a Copa del Rey victory over Deportivo Murcia. That match finished 10-0 in favour of Luis Garcia Plaza’s side against an outfit from the Primera Autonómica, the seventh tier of the Spanish pyramid. Just days later, Hagi’s term took a turn for the worse. In the eyes of some, it has never recovered.

It can be pinpointed as something of a sliding doors moment and arrived late in the first half of a La Liga fixture at home to UD Almeria. Hagi placed the ball on the spot and steadied himself at the edge of the area. When the camera focused on him after the penalty had been struck, his face said it all. Aiming for the top right corner, Hagi blazed his effort high and wide of target. As the ball was thrown back from the stand behind the goal, Hagi put his hands over his mouth in disbelief before being cajoled by team-mate Luis Rioja and the whistle allowed him to return to the dressing room. Alaves went on to win 1-0 against the side that are currently cut adrift at the foot of La Liga.

“There was a key moment, when he missed a penalty against Almería,” Inigo Minon, the editor of the Alava sports section for El Correo, told the Rangers Review. “Since then, he seems to have lost confidence. The coach has always said he has confidence in him and hoped to get him back, but when it comes down to it, he has several players ahead of him. The player in his position, Jon Guridi, is one of the most important players in the team. He hasn't had any physical problems, it's a question of confidence and adapting to the rhythm of Spanish football.”

Hagi made his Alaves debut just days after putting pen-to-paper at the Mendizorrotza Stadium. His final appearance for Rangers had come the previous month as he stepped off the bench for the last half an hour of the League Cup win over Morton. It was his 99th outing in blue. He could well fall one short of the century.

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As Hagi recovered from the cruciate knee ligament injury that kept him out of action for a year, he used the time wisely, expanding his knowledge of the game and the world. He has always been a football obsessive and a student of the sport and he became fluent in Spanish as his mind and his body were enhanced from the darkest days of his career.

A move to La Liga could and should have been a turning point. It has, but just not in the way that Hagi believed it would. A debut against Valencia was followed by a handful of outings that saw his influence and game time increase and his first assist came in the 2-1 defeat away to Atletico Madrid. The Almeria event was next, though. He only got 11 minutes against Barcelona the following week and was restricted to half an hour of action across the matches with Granada and Mallorca as Alaves collected four points.

“In November, there was a bad point,” online journalist, podcaster and Alaves supporter Javier Blanco told the Rangers Review. “He missed a penalty against Almeria and since that match, I don’t know why, he is without confidence. Everyone knows that in football, in life in general but in football, if you want to do a good performance you have to be good with yourself and have confidence.

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"He started well but that, against Almeria when he missed the penalty, and since then he didn’t play very well. We think he has a lot of quality, he is a good player. If you watch the team of Alaves and you talk about quality, he is in the top three or top five of the team, but he is not doing a very good season because I see him without confidence.”

Hagi started in his preferred number ten role for the visit of Las Palmas in early December. It ended in defeat for Plaza’s side, as did the fixtures with Girona and Real Madrid. Five of the next seven La Liga outings were watched completely from the bench as a late run-out against Barcelona and another at home to Villarreal, one of a handful of matches that have been near misses for Alaves this term, saw Hagi fall to the fringes of the squad.

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There are, of course, no guarantees in the game. All parties would have entered into the agreement with the best of intentions but the loan has been an unfulfilling one to date for Hagi. Predictions from his father, Gheorghe, that he would return to Ibrox ‘twice’ the player look somewhat wide of the mark.

“The signing was greeted with both scepticism and hope,” Minon said. “It was seen as a media player looking to regain his best level in Vitoria. The fans were somewhat divided between those who had confidence in his undoubted quality and those who doubted whether he would fit into a team that is more about the unit than the individuals.

“The loan is not being productive, as Ianis is not playing much of a role. He had opportunities at the beginning of the season, but he didn't take them. It's not that he did badly, but he lacked something to perform at the level of his team-mates. And now he has been out of the starting eleven for more than two months.”

At 25, Hagi should be moving towards the peak of his powers but the game has dealt him some cruel hands in recent seasons. The playmaker was such an influential and integral part of Steven Gerrard’s side as Rangers lifted their 55th league title but the knee injury that curtailed his career saw him miss out on the run to Seville. His return to action was slow and steady and he never looked like establishing himself as part of Beale’s squad.

His strike in the win at Easter Road was followed by a visceral outpouring of emotion as all the hard work, the sacrifices and the worries were enveloped by the joy of doing what he does best. Just weeks into the new campaign, Hagi expressed his frustration as he was forced to watch on from the sidelines for a very different reason. He insisted he respected Beale’s decisions, but that certainly didn’t mean that he agreed with them.

You didn’t have to read too deeply between the lines to see how the situation was going to unfold. Beale had spent significant sums bolstering his attacking options and Hagi wasn’t part of the plans. The parting of ways upset and irked some supporters and it would have been a decision made with the head rather than the heart.

“As you imagine, everything Hagi does is big news in Romania,” Romanian football expert and freelance writer Emanuel Rosu told the Rangers Review. “Each of his decisions are much commented on. The move to Alaves was unexpected, considering he was only just returning to form after the injury. He loved it at Rangers and Beale's decision to tell him he's not a pillar of the season's project surely hit him quite hard. His short time at Alaves was a lower scale reproduction of his three years with Rangers. He was sometimes shining, he was getting people excited, but he never did enough to cement himself into the starting line-up.

“But Rangers understood him and he understood Rangers, he was in a safe zone and felt great there before the injury. Given the context at the beginning of this season, he opted to try something new. I think he is frustrated too because he definitely went there for a different role. And people in Romania feel the same. Ianis was always decent when coming on for the national team, but his limited game time is a problem with so little left until the Euros.”

Hagi may have left Rangers, but Rangers has never left Hagi. This week marked the anniversary of arguably his most famous moment in blue, the night where we announced himself as a player and endeared himself as a person. His iconic ‘Ibrox baby, it’s just different’ response to a question after the victory over Braga is still cherished by supporters and the Romanian posted it on his Twitter account after the official UEFA page showed footage of his memorable brace.

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The injury Hagi sustained against Stirling Albion has changed the course of his Rangers career. He still has time left on his contract, but it remains to be seen if he has a future in Glasgow. In hindsight, it would have perhaps been better for him to stick it out, but he will never know what role he could have played for Philippe Clement. On the day the Belgian's side romped to victory over Hearts at Ibrox, Hagi spent the full 90 minutes on the bench as Alaves conceded an 88th minute equaliser at home to Mallorca.

“I feel so, yes,” Rosu said when asked if he believed Hagi should have stayed at Ibrox this season. “And I think it would have been the best place for him. He feels well in Glasgow, he likes Rangers, he basically denied his structure as a player to become a guy Rangers would love and find useful. Look at the player he was when he came and look how he thrived in attitude and even physicality over the next two years. And he did it with an open heart, because he came to love the club. Given that detail, I believe staying would have made sense.

“When the announcement of his loan was made, the general opinion was positive. Of course, it makes sense. It's La Liga, where his dad played for Barcelona and Real, also maybe a league to suit more the technical qualities Ianis has. And the first few contacts were promising. Sadly, as the season progressed and with him not being decisive when the manager wanted him to, he fell a bit in the team hierarchy. Fortunately, he's a man, not a boy anymore, so we expect this frustration to turn into ambition.”

The reaction from Hagi will shape the next stage of his career. A return to Ibrox during the January transfer window was not a possibility and was never on the cards. It will be for Clement to determine if that route is open come the end of the campaign.

That cannot be the focus for Hagi right now, though. The remaining La Liga fixtures carry their own significance for him and he must find a way of playing himself into form first and foremost.

He has shown no ill effects of the cruciate ligament surgery and the benefits of his summer schedule and pre-season work ensure he is in the right place physically to make an impression for Alaves. He has the technical ability and tactical nous to perform. Maybe, though, he is trying too hard to catch the eye.

Blanco points to the increased attention in Alaves from Romania as another factor to consider. Press conferences that were conducted in front of four or five local reporters now have representatives from Hagi’s homeland but the club have sought to dampen the noise around the man who has forever been known as the son of Gheorghe. El Glorioso always train behind closed doors and Hagi’s media appearances have been limited over the course of the campaign. 

“Our coach wants to play well,” Blanco said. “Alaves want to have the ball and I think that style of football is good for Ianis. What is the problem? He has no confidence, as I have said previously, and he has to be calm with the ball. I think that he wants to play very well and he has to be more patient. The football that Alaves play, I think is good for Ianis.

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“He had an injury and we know that. It was a very bad injury in the knee so we know that. What is the problem? He is not playing the best season here. Everybody thinks that he is a very good player, we know that he is a very good player but we are not happy with him. We think that he has a lot of qualities and is a good player but that he has to be more patient with the ball and stay calm. If he does that, he can be a success here in Vitoria or at Glasgow Rangers or at any other club.”

For Minion, the chances of Hagi returning to Spain next season are slim and he would be surprised if Alaves look to do a deal to keep the forward for another term. Bluntly, the respected writer believes that Hagi simply ‘hasn’t earned it to date’ and the importance of the European Championship cannot be understated as a result. Minion believes Hagi will head to Germany as a Rangers player but it is far from certain which club colours he will pull on after wearing the yellow of his nation this summer.

It was perhaps written in stars that Hagi would score the goal that ended Romania’s eight-year absence from major finals as victory over Israel secured qualification. He detailed the teachings from his father, urging him to have ‘courage and trust’ after a place at Euro 2024 was clinched and he can now dream of living up to the family name on the international stage.

“If there is major good news regarding Ianis Hagi this season, then that's it,” Rosu said of Hagi’s fitness and availability for national service. “We know that he's capable of doing things, even if he won't start, even if he won't be at his best form-wise. He offers you an alternative and these kinds of players are hugely needed in a team. Even much more for a national team like ours, that doesn't count on great individual quality and misses a spark. He can always light up the game. For sure [it is an important tournament for him]. If he won't get the game time he's after at Alaves, a good Euro 2024 campaign can erase all stats and can prove essential for his next step.”