McLeish happy with underdog tag

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The Independent Online

Alex McLeish said yesterday that Rangers are the underdogs for tonight's Champions' League last-16 match against Villarreal at Ibrox, but he insisted that that can help his side.

"Apparently Villarreal cheered when they heard the draw for the last 16," he said. "But we are not here just to make up the numbers. We surprised a few people in the group stages but Villarreal are the favourites and there is maybe a wee bit more pressure on them."

McLeish will leave Rangers at the end of the season after more than four years at the helm. He has won seven domestic trophies in that time, but, barring a miracle in Europe, he will add nothing else. He said yesterday that neither a poor domestic campaign nor his imminent departure has affected his team on the biggest stage of all.

"I don't think that has affected the players in the Champions' League games," he said. "They have already achieved something getting to this last 16 and that means they must have been doing something right and in our group-stage games we only lost one game - to a deflected goal in Milan [against Internazionale]. So the players have shown they are more than capable of upsetting the odds, let's hope they can upset them again."

Both clubs are entering uncharted territory. Villarreal, who topped a group comprising Benfica, Manchester United and Lille, are in their first Champions' League campaign. Rangers are the first Scottish club to make the last 16.

Both sides returned to form at the weekend after rocky patches. Villarreal had won only once in nine games domestically before hammering Espanyol 4-0. Rangers had lost three on the bounce before beating Hibernian 2-0.

Both teams are looking to benefit from comebacks by influential figures. Villarreal still hope that their Argentinian playmaker, Juan Roman Riquelme, will be fit enough to play.

Rangers are almost certain to start with Julien Rodriguez in central defence and Dado Prso up front. Rodriguez has been out since August. Prso returned to action this month after being out since November. Both played in the Monaco team who lost the 2004 Champions' League final to Porto.

The key difference between the sides in Europe is that Villarreal have been tight at the back (one goal conceded in six group games), while Rangers have not (conceding seven in six). Villarreal's progress was not emphatic. They scored only three goals and their path to the last 16 was only confirmed with their final group win over Lille. But compared to the jittery, draw-laden route that Rangers took, it was comfortable.

Rangers (probable, 4-3-1-2): Waterreus; Ricksen, Rodriguez, Kyrgiakos, Smith; Burke, Hemdani, Ferguson; Buffel; Prso, Boyd.

Villarreal (probable, 4-1-2-1-2): Vieira; Javi Venta, Rodriguez, Pena, Arruabarrena; Senna; Tacchinardi, Roger; Riquelme; Jose Mari, Forlan.

Referee: E Poulat (France).

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