Inter's move to rest key players may lift Rangers

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The Independent Online

Alex McLeish yesterday spoke of the "marvellous opportunity" available to his Rangers side tonight at Ibrox, where a Champions' League victory over Internazionale would guarantee progress to the knock-out stages, a first for any Scottish side in the tournament. That opportunity became more attractive still when Inter announced that six of their key players, including the midfielders Juan Veron and Luis Figo, were being rested and not even travelling to the game. The players left behind in Italy also include the strikers Alvaro Recoba and Julio Ricardo Cruz, who are respectively ill and injured, as well as the defender Ivan Cordoba and midfielder Dejan Stankovic.

Inter, who are already certain to finish top of Group H, face a domestic derby with Milan in Serie A this weekend. Their coach, Roberto Mancini, insisted that his side will still be looking to win although the empty seats on the team plane suggest a lack of urgency at best.

Whether tonight still offers a chance for McLeish to save his job is doubtful, with a general assumption that his four-year tenure will end this week, whatever the result. The manner of his departure, rather than the fact of it, seems to be the only unresolved issue.

Rangers' winless run, the longest in their history, was stretched to nine games on Saturday when they let slip a 2-0 lead to draw at home against Falkirk. That result saw them drop to fifth in the league, 17 points behind Celtic, 16 behind Hearts, 10 behind Hibernian, and two behind Kilmarnock, where they travel on Sunday.

"It's obviously very disappointing just now, the league form," McLeish said, "[but] it would be fantastic to take Rangers through." McLeish has consistently declined to talk about his future, reiterating only that he is "not a quitter".

In McLeish's mind, last month's decision by his chairman, David Murray, to keep him in his post has been pivotal in Rangers Champions' League campaign. "I'm absolutely certain if we had had a change [of manager] then we could be struggling to stay in Europe," he said, citing the 1-1 draw at Porto a fortnight ago as evidence.

That is debatable, with many people arguing that a change of manager last month could have improved Rangers' fortunes domestically and in Europe.

A win tonight will guarantee Rangers' progress in the Champions' League. A draw will be good enough as long as Artmedia Bratislava do not win at home against Porto. And even a defeat for Rangers would still be enough to progress if Artmedia and Porto draw.

In other words, Rangers are guaranteed at least third place in Group H - and a Uefa Cup place. And they will only forfeit knockout football in the Champions' League by drawing or losing against Inter while Artmedia win, or by losing while Porto win.

On form, the chances of a draw between Artmedia and Porto look reasonable. Artmedia have not scored in six of their last eight European matches, and are winless at home in three. Porto have lost four out of five away games.

Rangers will have their captain, Barry Ferguson, back after suspension, although their other talisman, Dado Prso, remains injured, as do three other first-choice picks: the defenders Julien Rodriguez and Olivier Bernard, and the striker Nacho Novo.

Thomas Buffel, who returned from injury to shine against Falkirk, should start. He said yesterday that Rangers' woes were not McLeish's fault, but the players' responsibility. There could be no better occasion to make amends.

Rangers (possible, 4-4-1-1): Waterreus; Ricksen, Andrews, Kyrgiakos, Murray; Hemdani, Ferguson, A Rae, Lovenkrands; Buffel; Thompson.

Internazionale (possible, 4-4-2): Julio Cesar; J Zanetti, Materazzi, Samuel, Favalli; Pizarro, Cambiasso, C Zanetti, Solari; Adriano, Martins.

Referee: K Plautz (Austria).

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