Zenit St Petersburg struck a blow for the new era of Russian football last night, lifting the Uefa Cup thanks to goals by Igor Denisov and Konstantin Zyrianov in a match illuminated by the skills of Andrei Arshavin.
Football triumphed over pragmatism, just, to end Rangers' dreams of a quadruple. If there is consolation in a season that reached the 64-game mark for Rangers last night, it is that they still have four matches to play, and the SPL title and Scottish Cup are still available to add to the CIS Cup.
If there is regret it comes not from failing on the pitch – they tried their hardest, but the best team won – but from trouble caused by a minority of Rangers' huge following last night.
There was nothing but good behaviour and attractive football (by Zenit at least) inside the City of Manchester Stadium itself. Rangers' manager, Walter Smith, even took time in his press conference to praise Arshavin, and admit that he is the type of player that Rangers lack.
"This season we've missed the kind of play that the man of the match can offer," he said. "Someone who can give us something a little bit different. We've lacked someone to give us a bit more creativity."
Smith's counterpart, Dick Advocaat, a former Rangers manager himself, said: "I feel very happy winning a prize like this. It does not come often in your life, but if you've seen the way we played in this tournament, we deserved it."
The scale of the pilgrimage here by Rangers fans spoke volumes for what the occasion meant. Of the 108 trophies in their club's history, only one has been European, the Cup-Winners' Cup of 1972.
These are blue moon nights, and how Rangers turned Manchester blue. Rarely, if ever, have so many fans of a British team traveled for a match. Some 100,000 were expected. More turned up, and not just from Glasgow. From Australia they came, and Azerbaijan, North America and the Middle East, and all points in between, fuelling a black market where tickets routinely changed hands for £1,000.
By 2pm, Manchester police estimated there were 80,000 Rangers fans in the city centre alone. Untold thousands more were blocking the M6, pouring in from Blackpool (30,000 made it their base) and flooding the streets around the stadium.
They were supposed to be in possession of 17,000 seats of 45,000 available, with Russian fans occupying 9,000. In reality, there seemed to be 35,000-plus decked out in blue. "This is your chance. This is your time. Become legends," said their biggest banner.
Some Zenit followers settled for: "Submarine – For glory and victory." It is something to do with a fans' collective, apparently. It also represented Zenit's ambition to send Rangers' mood to 20,000 fathoms.
In the absence of Zenit's suspended leading goal scorer, Pavel Pogrebnyak, Advocaat bought back Arshavin, his most inventive forward, after his own ban. Arshavin, 27, is one of six Zenit players named yesterday in Guus Hiddink's Russia squad for Euro 2008. Another is Zyrianov, who has achieved great things despite awful tragedies in his life, including the suicide of his wife, who killed herself and their small daughter in 2002.
Smith was wise to be cautious, yet again, with a tweaked 4-2-3-1 version of his usual 4-1-4-1 European formation. Brahim Hemdani and Kevin Thomson played dual holding roles. Goodness only knows how many times Zenit might have scored had Smith tried to be expansive.
Arshavin's guile, pace and movement caused Rangers problems time and again. He made an early diagonal run towards the left of the box to collect a dissecting pass, and rattled a hard effort into the side netting. It was one of 10 first-half shots by his team, to one by Rangers.
Just when it seemed the whole affair might be one-way traffic, Rangers' captain Barry Ferguson combined with Thomson to set up Jean-Claude Darcheville, who tore into the box and squared an inviting pass, only to see it cleared by Ivica Krizanac. Then the one-way traffic resumed.
Shot, save, shot, save, shot nerves. This was not atypical for Rangers this season. Dull for neutrals maybe, but they would argue that winning matters most. And when you try to do that with a wage bill millions of pounds lower than Derby County's, you do it how you can. Defend in numbers. Wait for breaks. Pounce on them.
Darcheville tried to do just that in the 54th minute, when put through by Steven Davis. His initial shot was blocked and in an ensuing scramble, Rangers had a penalty shout for handball by Denisov denied. Replays showed they had claims, but then Zenit had earlier been denied in a similar situation involving Kirk Broadfoot.
Arshavin continued to menace. Just after the hour, he chased a long ball, and Neil Alexander, fearing a one-on-one, came way out of his area to chase, too. Arshavin won the ball, and shot, but Sasa Papac had tracked back to the unguarded net and nodded cleared from the line.
Arshavin was inevitably involved when Zenit took the lead, in the 72nd minute, cushioning the vital final pass in a two-man move started and finished by Denisov, who tucked his shot past Alexander.
Smith brought on two strikers and an attack-minded midfielder in search of a goal that failed to come. Zyrianov put the icing on Zenit's cake in injury time.
Zenit St Petersburg (4-3-3): Malafeev; Anyukov, Krizanac, Shirokov, Sirl; Denisov, Tymoschuk, Zyrianov; Fayzulin (Kim Dong Jin, 90), Arshavin, Fatih Tekke. Substitutes not used: Contofalsky (gk), Radimov, Dominguez, Ricksen, Ionov, Gorshkov.
Rangers (4-2-3-1): Alexander; Broadfoot, Cuellar, Weir, Papac (Novo, 77); Hemdani (McCulloch, 80), Thomson; Davis, Ferguson, Whittaker (Boyd, 86); Darcheville. Substitutes not used: Smith (gk), Adam, Dailly, Faye.
Referee: P Frojdfeldt (Sweden).
Screen failure triggers clashes with riot police
Rangers fans clashed with riot police after a screen showing the game in the Piccadilly Garden fan zone failed to work last night. Police charged supporters after they lobbed bottles and cans at the officers, marring the good-natured atmosphere which had characterised the build-up. Clashes continued in the city centre in the game's aftermath with police making 30 arrests by late last night. In a separate incident a Russian fan was stabbed in the back outside the City of Manchester stadium, though his injuries were not life threatening according to Greater Manchester police. Six men, thought to be Rangers fans, were arrested for an alleged serious assault.Reuse content