Hemdani return lifts Rangers for Lisbon showdown

Brahim Hemdani has handed Rangers a timely boost by declaring himself fit for tomorrow's Uefa Cup quarter-final match with Sporting Lisbon. The midfielder has been a key man in Rangers' European challenge this season, starting 13 of the club's 14 games in the Champions League and Uefa Cup despite featuring in just 11 Scottish Premier League matches.

Manager Walter Smith has used the former Marseilles captain to shield his back four and the effective tactic is likely to be employed against Sporting.

The 30-year-old has recovered from the groin injury which forced him to be substituted at half-time in the CIS Insurance Cup final, and Smith said: "Brahim Hemdani will be fit again. He has had a groin injury for the past couple of weeks which has ruled him out of the games."

Smith also confirmed Kevin Thomson will be available for the first-leg tie against the Portuguese giants having recovered from the shin injury he sustained after scoring the winner in Saturday's Old Firm game. That victory and the recreation of the spirit of the nine-in-a-row era Smith has created has put Rangers in pole position to regain the League title according to former Ibrox defender, Fraser Wishart.

The home win over Celtic on Saturday stretched Rangers' advantage over the champions to six points with a game in hand although two Old Firm matches at Parkhead still have to be played.

The chief executive of PFA Scotland, Wishart played for Rangers for a brief spell in the early 1990s when Smith – in his first spell at Ibrox – led his team to nine championships in a row. Wishart said: "It will be difficult for Celtic to win the title now. They are relying on another team doing them a favour. If Celtic win the two games at Parkhead obviously they have a chance – but I think Saturday was a big result for Rangers. They are certainly in the driving seat."

Wishart believes Smith deserves great credit. "Walter instils a belief in players. He is a very good man manager," he added. "I played in Old Firm games for him, and he had a way of relaxing you before a game but also getting you driven and determined the closer you got to kick-off.

"We had a belief that we would go out there and win the games, and there is now that belief at Rangers again.

"Football is a team game and if you don't have a great team ethic that can cause problems – and Walter has always been big on team spirit. The nine-in-a-row team had strong characters, and there is a bit of that in this team." Wishart believes Smith has already achieved much – and the title would confirm that.

"I think it will be a huge achievement for Walter to win the League for Rangers," he said. "There has been a huge turnaround in players this season. First and foremost, Walter had to make his side competitive – and he has more than done that. They were so far behind last year when he came in. Dressing-room morale was low; there was a split in the camp, and so first of all he had to solve those problems. To turn the team around to be six points ahead of Celtic with a game in hand, is a remarkable achievement."

However the Celtic winger Aiden McGeady believes Rangers could become vulnerable if they lose the first of the two remaining Old Firm derbies. But the Republic of Ireland international has warned that Celtic must claim the full 24 points on offer in their remaining games if they are to muscle their way to a third consecutive SPL title.

McGeady said: "Having two home games against Rangers gives us the chance to claw back some of the points and those matches are going to be massive now.

"If we can win the first one, it will allow us to close the gap and give us a real boost going into the next one. Those games are so vital for us now and we'll do everything we can to take full points."

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