Smith banking on fit Ferguson to ride optimism sweeping nation

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The Independent Online

The Rangers manager Walter Smith faces an anxious wait to discover whether his captain Barry Ferguson will be fit for tonight's Champions League opener with Stuttgart at Ibrox.

The midfielder aggravated a knee ligament injury, which he had been carrying for several weeks, in training on Monday and faces a late fitness test.

Ferguson was a surprise omission from the team which started against Hearts in the Scottish Premier League at the weekend, with Rangers slumping to a 4-2 defeat.

He played the second half in Edinburgh but the defeat, the first of the season for Smith's men, underlined the importance of the club captain's contribution.

"Barry will get treatment today and there will have to be a fitness test tomorrow before we know if he will be fit or not," said Smith.

"Obviously we hope he is. He has been playing for the last three weeks or so with this injury and it's just when he gets a little knock on it, as he did in training yesterday, that it becomes rather painful.

"We are hopeful it will settle down and he will be fit and will be able to play."

Smith assured concerned fans that the 29-year-old's problem is not serious, adding: "It's just a small ligament injury. If it was a major injury, he wouldn't have been able to play with it. It will clear up the longer he goes without getting a knock on it."

Fierce rivals Celtic reached the last 16 of the Champions League last season, exiting to the winners Milan after extra time, before Scotland's win over France last week helped raise the profile of the Scottish game further.

Smith is hoping Rangers can ride the coat-tails of the confidence which is sweeping the nation and has challenged his players to match Celtic's achievements.

He said: "Celtic did well in the Champions League last season and the national team have been doing well so it's up to all the clubs to continue that and do well.

"It's good for Scottish football that we are being looked upon in a better light than a few seasons ago when results at all levels weren't that good. I hope we can keep up the standards that have been set.

"The Champions League is a step up in standard for us, there is no doubt about that. It's a big challenge and we look forward to the challenge. Anybody worth his salt would want to be involved. It's the top club tournament and we are delighted to be involved in it."

The nerves which accompanied the qualifiers against FK Zeta and Red Star Belgrade may not be so prevalent against Stuttgart, now that Rangers have at least six guaranteed Champions League games to relish.

But Smith warned against losing a competitive edge in the wake of the defeat to Hearts. "I don't really want us to relax, no. We relaxed a bit on Saturday and that's as relaxed as I want us to get.

"If you are involved in a competition, you are involved in it to do well and you need your competitive edge to be there. The tension that's involved in the previous rounds is there because it's a knockout stage.

"But, because you are in a group section, it doesn't mean the competitive edge is not still there. When you lose in the manner we did on Saturday, then any game would be a welcome one to show that we don't normally play in that manner.

"It was a disappointing result and performance but we can't be accused of playing in that manner on a regular basis. We have had some good form this season, and last season as well, so I hope we can show it was a slip-up and can get back on track again."

In the same way Smith is refusing to read too much into the result at the weekend, the Rangers manager is also taking little solace from Stuttgart's inauspicious start to the Bundesliga campaign.

He said: "If you look at the championship, they are only four points from the top of the League. If that's a bad start for them, well, that's fine if that's everybody else's assessment.

"For me, it's natural. They had a season last season when they were playing at their maximum to win the championship and, at the start of the new season, it may take them a little time to get up and running. I'm sure with the quality in their team, they will make up the points they've lost."

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