Caniggia shoulders role of the lone Ranger

Advocaat finds Ibrox is no longer the attraction for top players as he struggles to compete with Glasgow rivals. Loss of key midfielders is only partially offset by veteran Argentine recruit, argues Phil Gordon
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The blissful Swedish sunshine which Dick Advocaat felt on his back last Tuesday is unlikely to have eased his pain. It was not so much the calm before the storm for the Rangers manager as an interlude after the last one.

While much of Europe was huddling from the rain, Sweden was enjoying a heatwave. A perfect haven, in more ways than one, Advocaat would have been entitled to feel as he watched his side stroll to a 3-1 win in Malmö, the penultimate warm-up game before the Scottish Premier League begins on Saturday.

By the time Advocaat arrives at Pittodrie for the opening match against Aberdeen, he will have had yesterday's friendly with Anderlecht and Wednesday's Champions' League qualifying tie in Slovenia with NK Maribor to assess further just how his squad have recovered from last season's battering. Celtic did not so much regain power last season as blow away the air of impregnability that previously surrounded the once-perennial champions as they looked across Glasgow and watched their rivals goading them about a 15-point gap.

Fortress Ibrox was no more. Literally. Advocaat's players moved out of the stadium last month and into the £14 million purpose-built training ground and youth academy built at Milngavie, on the outskirts of the city. From now on, that is where Rangers' new recruits will spend their working weeks, instead of admiring the opulence of Ibrox's marble halls.

However, it is a measure of the low front currently prevailing at Rangers that there was only one press conference at the new venue this summer to parade new signings. The acquisitions of Claudio Caniggia for £1m from Dundee and Borussia Dortmund's Christian Nerlinger for £1.8m were a pale shadow of the unveilings which have characterised Advocaat's reign at the club.

The Dutchman has spent more than £70m in the transfer market in his three years there. This summer's frugality symbolises the uncertainty over the transfer system, but, perhaps, also the uncertainty of foreign players towards Rangers. Despite chairman David Murray's assertion that a wind of change was on the way to atone for last season's nadir, few seem willing to step forward and help the club which urgently seek a return to the hegemony they enjoyed during those 13 years when only two titles were unclaimed.

Nwankwo Kanu looks to be scanning other horizons now, despite Rangers' willingness to give Arsenal £9m for the unsettled Nigerian. Liverpool's Patrik Berger was another name touted, while the Bastia striker Pierre-Yves Andre preferred to join French champions Nantes rather than earn more money at Ibrox.

It is a far cry from those heady summers when Paul Gascoigne was plundered from Lazio or Brian Laudrup from Fiorentina. Rangers are hardly a spent force, but the £30m outlay last season on such players as Tore Andre Flo and Ronald de Boer has made them a more prudent one. The net loss of Giovanni van Bronckhorst to Arsenal, Jorg Albertz to Hamburg and Tugay to Blackburn is the departure of virtually Advocaat's entire midfield, which is scarcely compensated by the £13m Rangers received. The burden of the rebuilding work will fall most on the slim shoulders of Caniggia.

The 33-year-old Argentinian looks frailer close up than he did in the early 1990s, when he was arguably the world's top striker before a year's ban for taking cocaine at Roma stopped his career in its tracks. Yet looks can be deceiving. He proved last season when he came to Dundee, after spells with Boca Juniors in his native country and Atalanta in Italy, that he still possesses a velvet touch and the pace to carry him clear of defenders.

"He is still so fast," mused Advocaat after watching Caniggia partner Flo in Malmö. "His legs are thick and powerful." Caniggia's resistance to ageing was endorsed by his new team-mate Claudio Reyna, the US captain, whose Argentine father reveres Rangers' new signing.

"My family were so excited about Caniggia signing for us," said Reyna. "He is still an idol in Argentina and from what I have seen of him in our pre-season games, he is still a phenomenal player. He is the type who commands respect from opponents."

Both Flo and Caniggia scored against Malmö, which may encourage Advocaat, who has had a frustrating task trying to blend his record £12m signing from Chelsea into the side. Though the Norwegian scored 14 goals after his transfer last November, he has failed to win over his many doubters among the Ibrox fans.

However, Caniggia insists he will not be the definitive partner for totem-pole Tore, expecting to perhaps start in only 25 games. "My aim is to play in all the games," he said at his unveiling, "but I will leave that to the coach to decide. Dick Advocaat told me there were no guarantees. No player's place is secure, but that is a good rule which produces a good mentality. At my age it is too hard to play every week. Maybe 10 years ago I could. However, I still have the same motivation as ever."

Rangers are confirmed opponents of international football – an injury while on duty with Holland crucially robbed them of Van Bronckhorst last season – yet it may serve their interest if Caniggia can reignite his own flickering dream of returning to the Argentina colours he graced in the 1990 World Cup final. "I would like to play for the national team again," he replied to those who asked if he yearned to end a four-year exile by appearing at Korea-Japan 2002, "but really the only thing I am thinking about is Rangers. They have given me an opportunity to finish my career at a big club, and I want to rise to the occasion."

As Caniggia surveyed his impressive new home, the notion persisted that a lot of responsibility was resting on a man who cost a fraction of the training complex he now sat in. "Pressure? I have been used to that all my career."