Football: Rangers fall heavily from commanding heights: Scottish champions' sudden exit from Europe the result of injuries brought on by last year's success. David McKinney reports

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The Independent Online
NIKOLAI TODOROV'S last- minute winner for Levski Sofia against Rangers in the European Cup on Wednesday reverberated like a gunshot around Scottish and European football. After their successes of last season, when they came within 90 minutes of an appearance in the European Cup final itself, Rangers have fallen at the first hurdle, victims not only of Todorov's spectacular strike but also of their defensive frailties in the first leg.

The two goals conceded at Ibrox proved decisive in the final count, and the fall from grace has hit hard. Rangers have become victims of their success last season when they went 10 European games without defeat, including two victories over Leeds United. After being fed a steady diet of success, their supporters demanded that they carry on from where they left off.

But while they collected the domestic treble on the way, Rangers have found the price of success a high one. Their key performers last season, those players who featured in around 70 games, have been lost to the team this time, victims of stress-related injuries.

Ally McCoist and Andy Goram have been acutely missed, Dave McPherson, David Robertson and Gary Stevens have been out of action for several games and Stuart McCall and John Brown, two players who embodied their never-say-die spirit, have also been missing for long periods. In their absence, the forcefulness and self-belief of last season has seeped out of the side.

Their home ground, dubbed 'Fortress Ibrox' in some quarters, has proved less impenetrable, with newly promoted Kilmarnock recording a 2-1 win and Partick Thistle collecting a 1-1 draw, results which would have been unthinkable last season. To date, Rangers have dropped seven League points and have shown themselves to be mortal after all. If they fail to recover the fortitude of the last campaign, there is a real danger of failure on the domestic front.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect for them has been the poor form of Duncan Ferguson, their pounds 4m signing from Dundee United. He has still to score his first goal for the club, although he has hit the woodwork on several occasions, and he has still to prove he can be comfortably accommodated alongside Mark Hateley. Furthermore, Ferguson was recently convicted of assault.

Their European exit could cost the club up to pounds 4m in lost revenue, money which could have been spent on players.

Walter Smith, the manager, tried to keep things in perspective during the morning- after post mortem. 'It was a costly night for us,' he said, 'but we can't afford to overdo the mourning. We have had problems at the start of the season, but we can't panic into anything, and I have no plans to move in the transfer market.'

Rangers have been hit hard by injury and they are discovering that, while they rode their luck on occasion in the past, the breaks are all falling against them now.

There will be little enough time to mourn, for tomorrow they visit Raith Rovers, with their number one priority now retaining their control of the domestic scene, and winning a sixth successive League title. Although Rangers' problems could lead to the most open championship race in years, none of the other leading clubs have yet mounted a credible challenge.

However, if Rangers' championship prospects are hit, they at least have the opportunity in next month's League Cup final against Hibernian to clinch an early place in Europe for next season.

One ray of hope is the expected return tomorrow of Ally McCoist, their 50-goals- a-season striker, now recovered from the broken leg suffered while playing for Scotland in Portugal in April. His goalscoring instincts have never been more important to the team.

Perhaps it is too early to pass proper judgement on Rangers. More will be known by the turn of the year when they are likely to have a full complement of players again.

But only if the spirit of the past can also be recovered, will they minimise the damage caused by Todorov on Wednesday night.