Football: Rangers to stay on Continental shelf: Joe Lovejoy talks to a True Blue about the Scots' chances of an advance on Europe

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The Independent Online
RICHARD GOUGH sends word that he is not best pleased about my suggestion that Stuttgart are a better team than Rangers, and that Leeds United must be favoured to make further progress in the European Cup.

Four days to the tie billed as the unofficial British championship, and Scottish sensibilities are already offended.

Ibrox will be no place for Sassenachs on Wednesday night - unless they happen to be playing for Rangers, of course.

The Scots' abiding desire to put one over the 'auld enemy' ensured that the first leg of this second-round tie would be a 42,000 sell-out. Interest north of the border is such that they could fill the most salubrious stadium in Britain - their five-star hotel without the bedrooms, as they like to call it - four times over.

Rangers' support, facilities and commercial infrastructure are second to none. Their team, unfortunately, has been second to just about everyone in Europe. Big fish in the small loch that is the Scottish Premier League, they become tiddlers whenever they are required to cross the North Sea.

For a club who qualify for one of the European tournaments every season, their record is dismal. They have won nothing for a generation, since beating Dynamo Moscow 3-2 in the 1972 Cup-Winners' Cup final.

They fall with the autumn leaves every year, yet were the prime movers in having the latter stages of the Champions' Cup played on a mini-league basis.

This time, of course, it is going to be different. They are about to clear the second round for the first time in four attempts. Really? Gough may think so, but an impartial, yet well informed observer is not so sure.

Nigel Spackman, a Rangers player as recently as last month, wants his old club to prevail, but would not wager a single penny of the fortune they paid him on it happening. The nomadic midfielder, now back for a second spell at Chelsea, said: 'I think it is going to be very difficult for them to beat Leeds. I hope Rangers do it, and give their supporters what they deserve, but they are facing very strong opposition. Leeds' confidence will be sky-high after beating Stuttgart in Barcelona like that.

'They shouldn't have had to play a third time to get through, but it may have done them a favour. Europe is a new experience for most of their players, and that extra game has given them a little bit more experience, and helped to familiarise them with the special demands.'

Spackman cites the poor quality of the domestic competition and some unkind draws as the principal reasons behind the Scottish champions' poor record in Continental combat.

'Rangers have a fantastic stadium, their pitch is perfect and the organisation behind the scenes could not be bettered. I have no doubt that they are the biggest club in Britain. Unfortunately, they need a stronger league to bring the best out of them.

'Winning the championship doesn't stretch them as it should, and playing in Europe is very different from the game in Scotland. It is about keeping possession and not giving the ball away cheaply. They come under less pressure in the Scottish league, where they are by far the best side, and become used to getting away with things which find them out in Europe.

'Continental teams worry them, and it is probably better for them to be playing Leeds than Stuttgart.'

Spackman identified two strengths which offered Rangers grounds for optimism. 'Virtually everyone in the side is capable of scoring, and the Ibrox crowd is worth a goal start, anyway. There is 40,000 there every time they play (the average attendance, 39,906, is the best in Britain) and a few of the Leeds players won't have experienced anything quite like it, and may be intimidated.'

The two teams have more than their large, volatile followings in common. Both play to the traditional 4-4-2 pattern, through tall, target-type centre-forwards, both are strong in midfield, and they share the same Achilles' heel. Right-back.

Leeds have failed to find an adequate understudy for the convalascent Mel Sterland; Rangers are struggling to replace England's Gary Stevens, who is still troubled by the ankle injury which kept him out of the European Championship.

Jon Newsome, David Batty and Chris Fairclough have all been tried and found wanting in Sterland's place; Stuart McCall and David McPherson, who play in midfield and central defence for Scotland, have been filling in for Stevens.

In the circumstances Peter Huistra, Rangers' Dutch left- winger, could be a major influence on Wednesday night. 'Huistra has been playing well,' Spackman said. 'He's got good pace down that left side, and could cause whoever plays right-back for Leeds a lot of trouble.'

Presupposing that Walter Smith's arithmetic is more reliable than Christoph Daum's, and Rangers field just three of their six foreigners, the likelihood is that Huistra and the two Englishmen, Mark Hateley and Trevor Steven, will continue to enjoy preference over Dale Gordon and the Ukraine's Alexei Mikhailichenko and Oleg Kuznetsov.

Spackman, whose own exit eased the problem, said: 'They've still got a lot of non-Scottish players, but Walter Smith has been trying to pick the same three all season, and not disrupt the team for Europe.'

Pressed for possible match-winners, True Blue (Rangers, Chelsea and potential Conservative candidate) votes for Hateley and Ally McCoist. 'They are going to be Leeds' biggest problem. Hateley is very good in the air, quick over the ground, and playing some good stuff up there. I think the English contingent will be surprised how well he is performing.

'McCoist is a natural goalscorer who has scored twice as many as anyone else in Scotland this season (20 in his last 14 games), and is always likely to pop one in.'

A forecast? 'I think its going to be very close on Wednesday - a great match - but playing at Ibrox, with that crowd behind them, you've got to fancy Rangers in the first leg.

'Remember, Leeds will have in the back of their minds that they went away to Stuttgart, played well for an hour, and then gave away three bad goals. They will be thinking about that.'

Possibly, but if they are, it will only be to guard against making the same naive mistakes again.

Sorry, Richard, but the force is with them, and the odds do favour Leeds.

(Photograph omitted)

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