TWO GOALS from Greece's most-capped international, Dimitris Saravakos, severely dented Rangers' hopes of a money-spinning European Cup run last night.
Saravakos struck goals in either half for AEK Athens in this preliminary round first- leg tie, and his side are now the favourites to reach the Champions' League and deny the big-spending Scottish title winners glamorous fixtures against Milan and Ajax.
Three days before their League season begins, Rangers are facing the prospect of an early defeat in Europe for the third time in four years.
'Losing the first goal in injury time in the first half was a psychological blow. We will have to play much, much better in the second leg,' the Rangers manager, Walter Smith, said. 'AEK are now favourites. It will be difficult, but we will give it a go.'
Time and again last night Rangers put themselves in trouble on the edge of their own area, with Andy Goram often forced to come to the rescue. The goalkeeper, recalled and taken off the transfer list by Smith, tipped away a Saravakos drive after 27 minutes and then blocked another from the same player as the two conducted a personal duel.
In first-half injury time, though, the Rangers defence was sliced open down the right and, when the ball was cut back, Saravakos unleashed a shot which hurtled past Goram from just inside the area.
With 20 minutes left, Saravakos added a crucial second goal. A long ball from the left put him clear as Richard Gough hesitated and, although Goram saved the first shot, the wily 33-year-old reacted first to score from the rebound. He only joined AEK this summer, after a decade across the city with Panathinaikos.
Rangers had three players booked - David Robertson, Mark Hateley and Steve Pressley. Before the game, AEK fans had hurled missiles at the Rangers' team bus, despite the presence of riot police. The Rangers vice-chairman, Donald Findlay, said he expected Uefa's observers at the match to report incidents in which firecrackers were aimed at visiting supporters.
AEK Athens: Matsidis; Papadopoulos, Kassapis, Manolas, Sabanantzovic, Vlachos, Saravakos, Savevski, Ketsbaia (Dimitriadis, 9), Tsartas, Kostis.
Rangers: Goram; Stevens, Robertson, Gough, Pressley, McCall, Laudrup, I Ferguson, Durie (Durrant, 78), Hateley, Murray.
Referee: P Mikkelsen (Denmark).