Football: Rangers face fraught night in the forest

TWO ENGLISHMEN abroad will seek to drag Scotland's standing in European football to an even lower level in the backwoods of Finland tonight.

Exile Keith Armstrong, the coach of Haka, and the former Manchester United player David Wilson, believe their side can end Rangers' Champions League campaign if they win tonight's second-qualifying round, first-leg match.

The Rangers coach, Dick Advocaat, is already irked by that his side's must start the competition this early, a reflection not on Rangers' decent run last season but on Scottish club performances in recent years. He expanded on that issue yesterday as his pounds 40m collection of players trained on the Tehtaan Kentta Stadium, which holds just 3,500 people and is ringed by the thousands of trees which are pulped in the papermill that looms over one of the goals.

Advocaat said: "I find it strange that we have to compete in this round when we are champions while Italy's fourth club [Parma], whom we drew with in the Uefa Cup last season, sit it out." Parma await the winners of this tie.

Armstrong smiled and said: "We are David and they are Goliath, and it may well be a boring, tight game which comes down to one mistake."

The 45-year Geordie, who has been in Finland for 20 years, upset Advocaat after with reported comments after watching Rangers play Rosenborg in a friendly in Norway last week but says he was in part misquoted. Nevertheless, Armstrong's confidence comes from the Haka's form - they have set a Finnish league record by losing just one of their opening 19 games - and Finland's rise in standards. HJK Helsinki reach the group stage of the Champions' League last season.

"HJK's exploits have taken away a lot of the inferiority Finns once had," he said, "but we are a much different team to them. They are very physical, as are most teams here, but we play a passing game. We are the West Ham of Finnish football."

The Hammers' connection was driven home by Advocaat, who noted how Harry Redknapp's team only just overcame Jokerit in the Intertoto Cup tie in Helsinki last Saturday. "That result shows that the teams must be decent here," the Rangers coach said.

David Wilson backs that theory. "The quality of play has improved a lot since I first came here six years ago," the 30-year-old midfielder said. "I would compare it with English First Division, but more skilful. There is more emphasis on passing."

Ironcally, Wilson gets his chance in the competition won last May by Alex Ferguson, the man who released him from Old Trafford after just six league games between 1985 and 1991. "It was not a good time to be a young player at United," he said. "Alex Ferguson had a lot of problems then."

Rangers struggled to beat Shelbourne in the Uefa Cup a year ago before they retreived a three-goal deficit to win 5-3. "We are a better team than that now," Advocaat said.

Rangers (probable): Klos; Wilson, Amoruso, Moore, Numan; Reyna, van Bronckhorst, Albertz, McCann; Wallace, Mols.