Cuellar is back into battle on four fronts

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The Independent Football

The Rangers defender Carlos Cuellar is confident of upsetting the odds and helping the Glasgow side into the Uefa Cup final. Cuellar will return to the Rangers back four for Thursday's semi-final second leg against Fiorentina in Italy after missing Sunday's Old Firm derby through suspension.

Fiorentina are favourites to progress after a goalless first leg but Rangers have already knocked out Panathinaikos and Sporting Lisbon after 0-0 draws at Ibrox.

Cuellar was badly missed at Celtic Park as the home side won 3-2, with the Rangers back four looking further exposed after his fellow-centre back David Weir limped off with with a groin injury early in the second half. Weir is a doubt for the game in Italy, while the midfielder Steven Davis is also causing concern with a groin problem.

But Cuellar is desperate to repay Rangers' manager, Walter Smith, for the faith he has shown in him since last summer and he believes they can keep the club's quadruple bid going in Florence. "My feelings are very positive," the Spaniard said. "We were very focused throughout the whole match and Fiorentina did not have too many chances to score. I think that we have a great opportunity to reach the final. We can win and get through in Italy."

Cuellar, who was named the Scottish Premier League Player of the Year earlier this month, recently claimed he would love to stay at Rangers for the rest of his career and yesterday said Smith had been a huge factor in his seamless transition to the Scottish game since his £2.4m move from Osasuna last summer.

"It makes me very proud," the 26-year-old told the Spanish newspaper Marca. "It is very difficult to obtain this award and it is recognition for the good season I have had. I have to also thank my team, who have helped me be named the best player in the Scottish league thanks to their good work. I arrived with high hopes and thanks to all the confidence they have given me I have adapted very well to this football. It is different to Spain and I am already totally integrated in Scotland.

"We are alive in all the competitions that we are disputing. I am playing a lot of minutes, I have played in the Champions League, we have a chance to win the Uefa Cup. The coach has given me a lot of confidence since that first day that I arrived in Glasgow and I am trying to respond in the best way possible.

"We are doing something very difficult and I hope to have won everything at the end of the season."

While Cuellar is relishing life at Rangers, he admits playing in Scotland is not doing his international chances much good. Cuellar has never been capped by Spain and is unlikely to break into Luis Aragones' squad before the European Championship finals. "I don't think that anything is closed, but it is much more difficult to get in," he said.

The Celtic midfielder Paul Hartley, meanwhile, praised manager Gordon Strachan's "man-management skills" after the Hoops blew open the Premier League title race with their second Old Firm victory in 12 days on Sunday.

After consecutive defeats to Rangers at Ibrox and Motherwell at Parkhead in late March and early April, the champions have bounced back with four wins on the trot and find themselves five points clear of Smith's side, and although Rangers have three matches in hand, the pressure has moved from Celtic to their side of the city.

Hartley, 31, explained how Strachan has kept his players positive. "He has great man-management skills and that's the secret of his success," he said.

"He hurts as much as the players when we suffer a defeat."

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