A consolation for Rangers was Porto's victory over Internazionale, keeping Group H wide open. Inter now top it with six points. Rangers and Artmedia have four, and Porto three. The reverse fixtures of last night's games in a fortnight could now be pivotal.
"We couldn't believe we didn't convert one of our chances, especially in the first half," Alex McLeish, Rangers' manager, said afterwards. "We couldn't keep the tempo up [in the second half] but we should have had the game won at half-time." Asked if he was confident that Rangers could qualify for the knock-out phase, he added: "I believe the way we played tonight, we can win in Bratislava. "
No Scottish club has been beyond the group stages in this competition, and judged on domestic form, Rangers could not have expected to change that this season. They have already failed to win five of their 10 domestic league games, and none of their three defeats even came against Celtic, with Rangers winning the Old Firm derby 3-1.
On that line of form, Rangers started last night's game as clear favourites, because when Celtic met Artmedia at home in the qualifying stages, they beat the Slovakians 4-0. But although McLeish said, pre-match, that his side's will to win "must be supreme" against Artmedia, the only thing supreme about them in the first 10 minutes was their tippy-tappy caution.
One spark from Peter Lovenkrands set them alight. Receiving the ball from Dado Prso, he slalomed into the visitors' box and laid off to Prso, who had motored alongside him. Prso could not curl the ball sufficiently to persuade it around Cobej, who blocked.
Rangers created an avalanche of openings. Federico Nieto was denied by Cobej. Barry Ferguson's curled free-kick was deflected over. Prso crossed to Hamed Namouchi, who could only hit his eight-yard scissor-volley into Cobej and then not reach the rebound.
Cobej also palmed away a close-range header from Prso and then forced a charging Prso, ball at feet, so wide that the Croat could not angle an accurate shot. Then he also held a Brahim Hemdani drive.
Artmedia were playing counter-punching football. They had to. And their best first-half chance arrived from a lightning break by Lukas Hartig, who spared the blushes of Rangers' absent defenders by raking his shot well wide.
After the interval, Steven Thompson, on for the injured Nieto, saw a shot deflected clear. After a brief lull, Cobej then kept out left-back Olivier Bernard's rasping long-range volley, another Thompson effort and a low drive from Namouchi.
Rangers (4-4-2): Waterreus; Ricksen, Rodriguez, Kyrgiakos (Andrews, 59), Bernard; Namouchi (Burke, 75), Ferguson, Hemdani, Lovenkrands; Nieto (Thomson, 38), Prso. Substitutes not used: Klos (gk), Pierre-Fanfan, Murray, McCormack.
Artmedia Bratislava (4-4-1-1): Cobej; Petras, Debnar, Durica, Urbanek; Vascak (Obzera, 68), Kozak, Borbely, Fodrek; Halenar (Tchur, 73); Hartig (Stano, 83). Substitutes not used: Kamenar (gk), Mikulic, Konecny, Burak.
Referee: A Dauden Ibanez (Spain).
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