Football: Scottish quartet ready for Europe

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The Independent Online
Scotland's Gang of Four enter continental combat this week knowing success is becoming increasingly crucial to maintain tartan presence in Europe.

Celtic, Aberdeen, Rangers and Hearts appear to have given themselves a better than even chance of progress in the qualifying rounds of the European competitions. And progress for all four is imperative if Scotland are to cling to their status in the continental arena.

Uefa is already threatening to withdraw the Uefa Cup place on offer to the Scottish Coca-Cola Cup holders and, ultimately, only one place instead of the current two might be on offer if Scottish clubs continue to perform poorly.

Changes to the Champions' League set-up for next season may favour the runners-up in the English Premiership, but whoever wins the title in Scotland may face even more hazardous preliminary and qualifying round games than Rangers have experienced in the past.

Walter Smith's men head for Russia today via Austria with a 3-1 lead over Alania Vladikavkaz, hoping to reach the lucrative Champions' League for the third time in five seasons. Rangers are said to be on pounds 30,000 a man to make it to the group stages, which could be worth in excess of pounds 5m to the club.

Richard Gough, who suffered a nasty head cut against Clydebank last week, came through Saturday's 5-2 Premier Division win over Dunfermline and is fit to travel. Smith is hoping Gordon Durie will recover from a chest infection while Gordan Petric has a slight thigh problem.

Celtic and Aberdeen are first into Europe tonight, with both hoping to reach the first round proper of the Uefa Cup. Pittodrie will probably host an almost meaningless tie, with Aberdeen having won 4-1 in Lithuania in the first leg against Zalgiris Vilnius.

Celtic will have the backing of a packed Parkhead as they seek to overcome Slovakian visitors Kosice after a goalless draw away from home. Simon Donnelly, sent off in Kosice, is suspended for the return but Italian Paolo Di Canio could make the bench. Paul McStay and Phil O'Donnell are both out injured.

Rangers will be next into action in darkest Russia when they face Alania in Vladikavkaz tomorrow night. Paul Gascoigne is suspended while Vladikavkaz will be without Arthur Pagayev, sent off at Ibrox a fortnight ago.

Hearts face Red Star Belgrade in the Cup-Winners' Cup in Edinburgh on Thursday night. Jim Jefferies' side did well to earn a goalless draw in Belgrade but will have to be wary of conceding an away goal at Tynecastle. Hearts should have the backing of around 16,000 fans after being given the go-ahead by council chiefs last week to open the Gorgie Road end of the ground.

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