McLeish finds defeat can clear the mind

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The Independent Football

The only splash of white on Rangers' horizon on Friday afternoon came from the snow-capped hills which looked down over their training complex. The scenery, though, was little compensation for Alex McLeish.

The prospect of another Battle of Britain with Leeds United was now only an illusion. Rangers had succumbed to altitude sickness in, of all places, Holland, as they attempted to clamber into the Uefa Cup quarter-finals. There was little pleasure taken in the fact that the English club had suffered the same fate at the hands of PSV Eindhoven: the only people on a high, it seems, were all in the low countries.

Feyenoord had trampled on McLeish's dream of taking Rangers to their first European final in 30 years and the manager felt as if he had been mugged by the 3-2 defeat in Rotterdam. Watching Pierre van Hooijdonk pickpocket two goals from carbon-copy free-kicks had been hard enough, but seeing one of his goalscorers, Neil McCann, harshly sent off for voicing dissent to a foul he never committed, simply galled McLeish.

"I am convinced we should be through," McLeish declared as he sifted over the bones of his first defeat since taking charge at Ibrox three months ago. "I believe that McCann's sending-off was a dubious decision, and it took away our momentum just when Feyenoord were looking uneasy."

The Scotland winger's red card robbed Rangers of the numerical advantage they had held after the Feyenoord defender Patrick Paauwe was sent off for bringing down Peter Lovenkrands. The clinical penalty from Barry Ferguson left Rangers with 38 minutes to score again and snatch an away-goal triumph.

McLeish, though, does not want to lodge a complaint with Uefa over German referee, Herbert Fandel. "The referee did not cost us the game," McLeish insisted, "we have only ourselves to blame. You cannot miss the chances that we missed if you want to progress at this level of competition, and the bottom line is that Feyenoord are through."

Lovenkrands, whose trickery drew a penalty in the 1-1 draw in the first leg in Glasgow, believes he should have had an earlier award in the De Kuip, a cauldron which would influence any official. "It was a bad challenge, the guy caught me across the throat with his arm and I thought I had swallowed my tongue," said the young Dane, whose rapid emergence under McLeish brought him his first cap last month and has stirred interest from Internazionale in a player who was on the margins under previous manager, Dick Advocaat.

Sadly, a mere inch separated Lovenkrands from hero-status with the Rangers support, steering Claudio Caniggia's set-up agonisingly wide. "I thought it was in," said the Dane ruefully. "We should have won, we had the best chances."

Lovenkrands, though, will be part of the new post-Advocaat era that McLeish will now construct, but Michael Mols will not. Holland's new national coach – who remains the director of football with Rangers – sat in the VIP section and watched as Mols, one of his many Dutch signings, blew a one-on-one chance late in the game.

"In many ways, defeat in Rotterdam clears the picture for me now," said McLeish, hinting at the departure of those who have not absorbed his message. "You will see in time," was all he would add.

With Europe gone, Rangers are fixing their sights on the CIS League Cup final and the Scottish Cup to ease the pain of Celtic's impending title triumph.

"A lot of players have shown great spirit since I came to Rangers," said McLeish. "On Thursday, Ferguson played with cracked ribs and Bert Konterman with an injection. The players are showing a will right now that was not here when I came – they believed they could win in Rotterdam and went about it the right way. That is a positive sign for this club."

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