McLeish, son of the old empire, is striking back

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The Independent Football

Alex McLeish knew that his European credentials were established 20 years ago once he had mastered the tough German part of the exam. The Rangers manager will swap history for modern studies on Wednesday, hoping his venerable teacher will not hand out a lesson in who wields power in 21st-century Britain.

Sir Alex Ferguson has built a genuine empire since leaving McLeish two decades ago. Aberdeen's influence has receded so much that, just like the old British empire, there is no red left on map.

It was a different matter in the early 1980s. Fergie brought the Cup-Winners' Cup and European Super Cup to Pittodrie in 1983, but it was victory over Real Madrid in the final that sealed the first trophy, and knocking out Bayern Munich in a thrilling quarter-final gave him and his players the belief that glory beckoned.

It was McLeish, the tall defender, who scored in that epic encounter. Now he is waiting to see how Ferguson has recovered from his own German lesson. The Rangers manager knows that United's defeat in Stuttgart could have repercussions when he and his mentor meet up in Glasgow on Wednesday.

"The Champions' League is an unforgiving tournament," reflected McLeish, still pondering his own team's late stumble in Athens the same evening United lost. Rangers may lead the group, but had they not conceded an equaliser to Panathinaikos, the margin could have been greater.

"If you don't take your opportunity, you can be punished," said McLeish. "Stutt- gart must have thought things were going quite nicely for them when they came here. They were 1-0 up and then lost two goals in 10 minutes.

"Experience is what United have over us. They are in the top four in Europe, but we have seen what happened to them in Stuttgart."

No matter how much palates are adjusted to accom-modate exotic appetisers, there is nothing quite like the meat-and-two-veg appeal of a Scottish team against an English one in Europe. The Battle of Britain has never lacked box-office appeal in the last four decades. It was evident when Celtic met Liverpool last season in the Uefa Cup, and when Rangers eclipsed Leeds United in the Champions' League in 1992. What McLeish is keen to avoid is the sort of humbling experience he and Ferguson underwent against Liverpool in the European Cup in 1980, when Aberdeen lost at Pittodrie to a Terry McDermott goal and were then thrashed 4-1 at Anfield.

However, McLeish is getting rather fed up with the past being dragged up so often as he gets ready to encounter the man whose advice he sought when offered the chance to manage Rangers 22 months ago. "I think we need to stop talking about this relationship [with Fergie]," declared McLeish. "I don't phone him every day, sometimes a month or two goes by before we speak. We have kept in touch since our Aberdeen days.

"This is the first time Rangers have faced United in this competition. It is amazing they've never crossed swords before. For me, to be facing Fergie after being in the managerial game for more than eight years in probably the greatest club competition in the world is incredible.

"I think the phones will be fairly silent in the next few days. However, nothing scares me. I will relish every moment of it. It's a special night, and we'll treat it as such. United certainly look as if they go up a gear in the Champions' League. They play to a much higher tempo. They are unremitting, though the Ibrox support should provide an extra shot of adrenalin for us.

"There is nothing about United that we don't know, but that doesn't mean it makes it any easier. It is sometimes difficult to find a weakness in their game."

However, if anyone can help Rangers to discover a flaw, it is Ronald de Boer. The Dutchman has returned from knee surgery in time to play. Ferguson knows De Boer's capability only too well - he tried to tempt the player from Barcelona in 2000, only for De Boer to prefer Ibrox instead.

"The team have been doing well in his absence," reflected McLeish. "However, De Boer is rightly a big-name player. He makes a difference when he plays for us."