Rangers' European charge shows no sign of slowing after taming Barcelona

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The Independent Football

After Rangers' latest stirring performance in Europe on Tuesday – holding the Champions League favourites, Barcelona, to a 0-0 draw at Ibrox – Walter Smith joked that having no 'O' Levels meant that qualifying permutations were beyond him. The maths is actually quite simple. Barca and Rangers are top of Group E with seven points, Lyons have three, and Stuttgart none.

Even if Rangers lose their next two games, in Barcelona then in Stuttgart, a win against Lyons would still guarantee progress. If other results before that go Rangers' way, they may not even need a win in their final game. They could even qualify with a game to spare.

"Fluke," said some critics after Rangers' opening-day victory at home against Stuttgart, last season's German champions. "Certain fluke," they cried when Rangers then won 3-0 at Lyons, French champions six times in a row. And even after the draw with a star-studded Barca, knockers of the Scots maintain that what they are producing really is not football. "Anti-football," said Barca's Argentinian wonderkid, Lionel Messi, yesterday.

That rather smacks of sour grapes. Rangers, by their own admission, are an inferior team in terms of individual skill compared to giants like Barca. But Smith, working on the first principle that Rangers should be hard to beat, has made them just that: impenetrable at times.

This is not fluke, rather a string of tough 90-minute endurance sessions in Europe where a back line of Alan Hutton, David Weir, Carlos Cuellar and Sasa Papac have held admirably firm. In seven European games this season (including four qualifiers), Rangers have conceded a total of one goal, to Stuttgart. Domestically, no side in the SPL has let in fewer than the nine goals Rangers have conceded in 10 games. Four of those were in one match, against Hearts, and two more in a 7-2 win over Falkirk.

In turn, the solidity in Europe has given the midfield kingpin and captain, Barry Ferguson, a platform to pull strings for counter-attacks, abetted by willing, hard-working colleagues. Ferguson and Tuesday's lone striker, Daniel Cousin, both came close to nicking winners against Barca, who failed to convert 66 per cent of possession into victory.

Rangers' heroics at least earned admiration from Thierry Henry, who said Rangers' qualification is a realistic prospect. "Why not?" said Barcelona's French front man. "You have to give Rangers credit. They fought very hard, they are top of the group with ourselves and they deserve to be where they are."

Cuellar couldn't agree more, insisting Barcelona were lucky to escape with a goalless draw.

"I think they lacked a bit of directness," he said, "and maybe in the last few minutes they didn't really decide to go for the win. Maybe we could have attacked them more in the last 15 or 20 minutes, when they were tired."

Rangers have just two weeks of respite before facing Barcelona again, this time in the Nou Camp. Cuellar added: "It is a pretty good draw, especially considering how the game went. We didn't have that many chances and we had to defend a lot. The important thing was to pick up a point."

Lyon picked up their first points with a win over Stuttgart but Cuellar has backed Rangers to book their place in the knockout phase. "We are in a good position and you never know what will happen in football," he said. "The important thing is that we still depend on ourselves to qualify."

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