Football: Rangers rush to be ready for Europe

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The Independent Online
Rangers have 77 days to prepare for a midsummer Champions' League roulette which could leave them dumped out of Europe before they even begin the pursuit of "Ten-in-a-Row".

That was the stark reality for manager Walter Smith yesterday as he geared up for arguably the biggest overhaul in his 11-year stay at Ibrox. Smith reluctantly left behind the afterglow of equalling Celtic's nine consecutive Scottish titles to look ahead to the chilly prospect of European elimination.

He must appoint a successor to Richard Gough as captain, wrap up perhaps four signings to add to Jonas Thern and Tony Vidmar, and wrestle with scheduling which could leave top players with just a fortnight's break.

And everything must be in place by 23 and 30 July when Rangers will enter the European Cup pre-qualifying round with no margin for error. "If you go out at that stage you are out of Europe, period," said Smith.

"It is only if you get through to the preliminary round, which includes the runners-up from Europe's top six nations, that you get a place in the Uefa Cup.

"The candidates for that stage at the moment are the likes of Barcelona, Parma, Bayer Leverkusen and Liverpool, Arsenal or whoever from England.

"We can't run away from the fact that our record in Europe should be better. We've qualified three times for the group stages which is okay but we haven't acquitted ourselves well enough there. It is a challenge we must take on and everybody wants us to raise our standards in Europe."

Smith disagrees with Uefa's decision to allow the runners-up of the best leagues a place at Europe's top table and accepts that Rangers would have to win the European Cup to escape the qualification tightrope.

As the format stands, Rangers could be out of Europe before they kick off the defence of the Premier Division on 2 August. Smith has already begun trawling for new talent as he accepts that an end of an era is looming. He will try to maintain a strong Scottish accent in his team, but says it is becoming harder season by season.

As the manager spoke, the 35-year-old Gough was on a transatlantic flight to Kansas to start his new career, and a successor to the captain was very much on Smith's agenda.

"There are candidates here like Alan McLaren, Brian Laudrup and Andy Goram who have all captained the club in Richard's absence but I've yet to make up my mind," he said.

Smith has set his sights on as many as half a dozen new signings with Sweden's captain Jonas Thern due to come from Roma and the Australian defender Vidmar from NAC Breda. "I've made inquiries with a number of clubs about availability, prices, wages and so on. I'd hope to have some movement on that soon. We have three players who will be out of contract. Ian Ferguson has agreed a new three-year deal and we are still in negotiation with David Robertson and Gordon Durie. I'll talk again with them next week."

Smith admitted it was hard to talk about change at Ibrox with the players that have served him so well over several years still downing the championship champagne. "I have the highest regard for them and the way they have maintained their determination to carry on winning," Smith said. "It is not easy to talk about change when many have been terrific players for me in my first spell in football management."

Smith expects the injured pair Stuart McCall and Sebastian Rozental to be ready for the early start in Europe after being ruled out since October and January respectively. The goalkeeper Andy Goram should be fit for selection for Scotland's games against Wales and Malta before the World Cup qualifier in Belarus on 8 June.

Rangers will be back for pre-season training on 23 June although Vidmar and Craig Moore have international commitments with Australia, Gordan Petric will be with Yugoslavia and others will have virtually only two weeks off. The Scottish champions will go to Germany for pre-season games and face Everton in the Dave Watson testimonial at Goodison on 16 July.