McCoist tips Rangers to bounce back and pull off Italian job

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The Independent Online

In the record books, it says Rangers have not played a European semi-final for 36 years. As Ally McCoist will tell you, that is not the whole story. The cheeky pundit who swapped the comfort of being captain of 'A Question of Sport' for the pressure of being Walter Smith's right-hand man will not need any prompting to tell you what happened next.

Rangers were just 90 minutes away from the Champions' League final in 1993, and the pain of failure still troubles McCoist. In those days, Europe's premier competition had abandoned semi-finals for two groups from which each winner progressed to the big stage.

Rangers, under the guidance of Smith in his first spell as manager, had McCoist up front, basking in the glory of being the Continent's leading scorer for the second successive season. They went into their final group game knowing that they would top the table if they won at home to CSKA Moscow and Marseille drew at FC Bruges.

In the end, Ibrox witnessed a goalless stalemate while Marseille advanced to the final. The French club defeated Milan in Munich but that only added to Rangers' frustrations, because they had drawn both their games with Marseille.

On Thursday, Fiorentina are at Ibrox for the Uefa Cup semi-final first leg. The Italians knocked out Everton to get to this stage, while Rangers have conquered Panathinaikos, Werder Bremen and Sporting Lisbon since parachuting in from the Champions' League. However, the timing could not be worse. Smith's pursuit of four trophies has suddenly been hit by a string of injuries and suspensions. Allan McGregor, the impressive goalkeeper, damaged an ankle in the defeat by Celtic last Wednesday and is unlikely to play, while the midfielder Lee McCulloch broke his foot in the Old Firm battle.

On top of that, Barry Ferguson and Kevin Thomson will both miss the game because of suspension after picking up needless yellow cards in Lisbon two weeks ago. The defeat by Celtic inflicted physical and mental problems. The champions have now reignited the Scottish Premier League title race and Rangers will be without their defensive rock, Carlos Cuellar, when they return to Celtic Park next Sunday after his red card there the other night, while David Weir will miss today's Scottish Cup semi-final with St Johnstone at Hampden Park following his post-match expulsion for fighting.

Will the next seven daysbreak Rangers' ambitions? "These players have answeredeverything up until now," McCoist said. "I don't have any doubts that they will keep answering the questions positively. We have a lot of strong characters in the dressing room and I believe that will help us."

Given the spate of injuries and suspensions, McCoist knows Rangers will now come under scrutiny, but he feels that Smith will cope. "The manager has been over the course so often, he's written the book," McCoist said. "Had we won the Celtic game, he would have been the same man coming in yesterday as he was coming in after we lost the game. I think that is a talent. You have to look to the next game at this club."

McCoist feels there are similarities between the new team Smith has built and the one McCoist starred in 15 years ago. "I see comparisons in terms of the strong characters," he said. "These boys have a real togetherness. A lot can be made of that but I think it's a big factor. You learn a lot more about your team when you lose games.

"The comparison I can make, without predicting the outcome of the St Johnstone game, is that our team will do what the 1992-93 team did – get the sleeves rolled up and get back into it."

It is one of McCoist's old team-mates who can put another spoke in the wheel today. Derek McInnes spent five years at Ibrox before leaving for West Bromwich Albion. The St Johnstone manager has guided the First Division club to their second successive Scottish Cup semi-final and, after losing narrowly to Celtic last season, they believe they can go one better today.

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