Football: Huistra keeps the Rangers dream alive

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The Independent Online
Club Bruges. . .1

Rangers. . . . .1

CRUELLY depleted by injury, Rangers dug deep into their reserves and dredged up a performance of heroic persistence to keep alive their dream of a place in the European Cup final.

The quest for their Holy Grail seemed destined to end in tears when Poland's Tomasz Dziubinski drove Bruges into a first-half lead, but with a handsome equaliser, Pieter Huistra effectively removed the Belgians from contention in qualifying Group A, while maintaining the Scottish champions' plucky pursuit of the favourites, Marseille.

France's finest having dropped a point to CSKA Moscow in neutral Berlin, Rangers now share their lead, with the potentially profitable return at home to Bruges next on the agenda, in two weeks' time.

Their penultimate match in the series, away to Marseille on 7 April, will probably be decisive.

Rangers' preparations had hardly been ideal, a lunchtime roll-call of the walking wounded finding them without Gary Stevens and Richard Gough, both convalescing at home, plus Ian Ferguson, Trevor Steven and Dale Gordon, who were not fit enough to play.

In all, injury deprived them of more than pounds 7m worth of Anglo- Scottish talent and, in the circumstances, this was one of their better nights in the competition that has caused them so much heartache in the past.

Only an outstanding performance by the Belgian goalkeeper, Dany Verlinden, denied them what would have been a famous victory.

If the night was cold - and at -1C the brass monkeys were looking distinctly apprehensive - the atmosphere was anything but. Bruges's supporters are among the most volatile in Europe, and they were in good voice after Dziubinski's 44th-minute goal.

Rangers, mind, have a fanatical and voluble following of their own, and the tunes of glory had a Scottish burr when a marvellous second-half fightback turned the tables.

A free-flowing, open game saw Bruges make good progress throughout down the left, where Scott Nisbet had an uncomfortable night as Stevens' understudy.

Booked after only two minutes, the stand-in right-back spent the next 88 with one eye on the referee when the dangerous Dziubinski demanded his undivided attention.

The onus was on Bruges, for whom nothing other than victory was enough. They accepted the challenge with surging insistence, and fortune favoured Rangers after 15 minutes when they were as close as it is possible to come to falling behind.

Andy Goram appeared to have dealt with the danger in punching away Dziubinski's corner, but the ball fell obligingly for Franky van der Elst, whose 20-yard volley shivered the crossbar.

The goal Bruges had threatened finally arrived just before half-time, when a long punt over the top forced John Brown to put the ball into touch, from where Peter Creve's long throw plunged the Rangers defence into disarray. Alexei Mikhailichenko made a hash of his attempted clearance, leaving Dziubinski to shoot in low, from 12 yards.

Rangers responded with the spirit which had enabled them to prise an unlikely point from a 2-0 deficit against Marseille, and a flurry at the start of the second half might easily have brought them equality.

Instead, Verlinden produced two stunning saves, denying Mark Hateley at close range and then calling to mind Banks and Pele when he flew to his left to claw out David McPherson's solid header.

Heroic stuff, but Rangers were not to be denied, and their unquenchable spirit had its reward after 74 minutes when a cross from Stuart McCall - their best player - enabled Huistra to thrash in the equaliser, which was the least they deserved.

Club Bruges: Verlinden; Cossey, Van der Elst, Verheyen, Borkelmans, Dziubinski, Creve (Renier, 82), Querter, Staelens, Booy, Amokachi.

Rangers: Goram; Nisbet (Pressley, 85), Robertson, Murray, McPherson, Brown, Mikhailichenko, McCall, McCoist, Hateley, Huistra.

Referee: M Navarrete (Spain).

(Photograph omitted)