Walter Smith may be 60 but in his head he remains a student of the game he loves. It is the Rangers manager's shrewdness that has thrust his side into the Uefa Cup final. Any man who can outdo the Italians at the art of defending in their own backyard has earned the right to contest a European trophy.
Smith's love of Serie A extended to buying up most of its talent – from Brian Laudrup to Paul Gascoigne – during his first, lavish spell as Rangers manager in the 1990s. He learned the hard way that Italy were street-smart when it came to the big occasions – he was assistant to Jim McLean when Dundee United saw a 2-0 lead overturned by Roma in the 1984 European Cup semi-final. He and McLean had to make their way up the Olympic Stadium tunnel after a 3-0 defeat, being spat upon by Roma players.
Payback came in Florence on Thursday night as Smith's team defeated Fiorentina in a penalty shootout after 210 minutes of the 'catenaccio' tactics which helped Italy rule the world. They now face Zenit St Petersburg – coached by Dick Advocaat, who replaced him at Ibrox in 1998 – in the final in Manchester and are still chasing the quadruple.
Celtic's two Old Firm derby wins in the last fortnight have put them back in the race for the Scottish Premier League title. Rangers travel to Hibernian today and face a hectic schedule that will see them play five other league games either side of the Uefa Cup final. The SPL have put back the finish of the campaign to 22 May and Rangers then face Queen of the South in a bid to add the Scottish Cup to the CIS Cup they won in March.
Smith watched his old friend, Sir Alex Ferguson – whom he assisted at Manchester United in 2003 – guide his team into the Champions' League final, and said: "I saw how much it meant to him and I felt the same. When Nacho Novo scored [the winner], it was fantastic. There's pride in how it has been achieved.
"A lot of people were critical of the way Rangers played but they must give us credit for getting there. Whatever faults we have, no one can say we don't have a commitment and an attitude that has seen us through some difficult games."
Smith is keen to downplay the final into a contest with the man who replaced him at Ibrox. "It's just a matter of trying to win, as I'm sure Dick will be trying to do. He enjoyed his time at Rangers and is still friendly with the chairman. I don't think that will be a motivation for him in terms of winning and it certainly won't be a motivation for me."Reuse content