McLeish relieved as Blues are lifted

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The Independent Online

Eight weeks ago, Alex McLeish was trawling the depths of isolation that only managers know. His Rangers side appeared to be disintegrating in front of his eyes, and his departure from Ibrox was being spoken of in terms of "when" not "if".

Eight weeks ago, Alex McLeish was trawling the depths of isolation that only managers know. His Rangers side appeared to be disintegrating in front of his eyes, and his departure from Ibrox was being spoken of in terms of "when" not "if".

Rangers were on the verge of being knocked out of two European competitions inside a month. Elimination from the Champions' League by CSKA Moscow was one thing; being humbled in the Uefa Cup by tiny Maritimo of Portugal was altogether a more heinous crime in the eyes of the Rangers support.

Even though McLeish kept his dignity and did not respond to the calls for him to quit after the first-round, first-leg defeat on the island of Madeira, he heard them only too clearly. It took a penalty shoot-out in the return match with Maritimo to throw the Rangers manager a lifeline, but now he is drowning in plaudits.

The dramatic Scottish League Cup defeat of Celtic in midweek did not just get a monkey off McLeish's back - after seven straight derby defeats - it offered Rangers hope that they could yet claw back their rivals' advantage in the Scottish Premier League.

Celtic went into this weekend four points in front, with Rangers facing a difficult trip today to McLeish's former club Hibernian in Edinburgh, but with the Old Firm due to reconvene at Ibrox next Saturday on League business, the blue half of Glasgow feels the pendulum has swung back in their direction.

"Time will tell," McLeish said. "We have to now concentrate on Hibs. It just goes on from game to game. You've got to train all your energy on winning the next one and make the previous result significant." As McLeish sat in Rangers' training complex on Friday and reflected on the extra-time success that may have bought himself a little bit of extra time, he was reluctant to describe one narrow 2-1 victory as a watershed. "We use that term a lot, don't we?" he said, no doubt recalling how it had been applied in a negative sense two months ago.

Equally, he did not want to be caught insisting that the pressure had now shifted to Celtic. "I don't want to get into mind games," he said. "I am just pleased to see we are starting to do better and, of course, we are winning."

The symbol of the change in Rangers' fortunes could be found out on the pitch at Ibrox on Wednesday. It was Fernando Ricksen whose 70-yard run set up Shota Arveladze's winner; a stark contrast to the days when the Dutchman was routinely sent off against Celtic. Ricksen and McLeish had fallen out last season, the player claiming he was being used in the wrong position (in midfield, instead of left-back), which had cost him his place with Holland at Euro 2004. Fulham offered £3m last year but McLeish resisted. Both men are glad of that judgement.

"Fernando's performances get better and better," praised the manager. "He not only breaks things up, he's actually becoming a key player. He's a good passer of the ball. I am not saying he's going to open doors like Zinedine Zidane or Francesco Totti, but he plays to his strengths. He is creating opportunities with his energy and his runs off the ball, as you saw the other night. His fitness levels are incredible."

Ricksen, the only player to have been punished on video evidence by the SFA for his misdemeanours, has also smartened up his act, with just one yellow card this term. "Fernando's not a kid any more," said McLeish. "He's a mature professional footballer and he's obviously had a good talk with himself. You can get all the help in the world, but it's got to come ultimately from the individual."

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