Rangers' European hopes in the balance

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The Independent Football

Make-or-break fixtures have become all too frequent for Rangers this season as they have made a mockery of their status as defending champions. With 12 games remaining, they are fourth in the table, 21 points behind leaders Celtic, and have no chance of domestic silverware, or, on form, any prayer in Europe, despite being the first Scottish club to progress beyond the group stage of the Champions' League.

Yet make-or-break remains the most apt description of today's home match against Hibernian, which comes four days before the home leg of their European encounter with Villarreal.

A second-place finish for Alex McLeish's side in the Scottish Premier League is unlikely but third is still within easier reach. Achieving that is necessary to avoid the ignominy of missing out on European football for the first time in 25 years.

Victory today would actually take Rangers into third, above Hibs, who start the day two points ahead, but defeat would hand the visitors a five-point advantage. It would also cast further doubt on whether Paul Le Guen, the former Lyon manager, is ready to take the reigns at the club. Having nothing but Scottish domestic football to look forward to for at least a year is not a prospect a veteran Champions' League campaigner will savour.

To add extra spice to today's game, Hibs will be looking for a fourth win in a single season against Rangers for the first time in history. Tony Mowbray's young team won 3-0 in the League campaign's first Ibrox meeting in August and followed that with a 2-1 win at Easter Road in November. A fortnight ago they landed the hat-trick with a 3-0 win, on Rangers' turf, to eliminate McLeish's side from the Scottish Cup.

Mowbray remained cautious on Hibs' prospects yesterday, saying: "Rangers are a club with massive resources, they're in the last 16 of the Champions' League and they'll be hugely motivated going into this game so everything adds up to a really tough game for us."

Rangers themselves remain upbeat, with winger Chris Burke, a rarity for his consistency this season, saying: "We have to make sure we beat Hibs. That would put us in good stead for the Villarreal game."

Celtic play tomorrow at Dunfermline, while Hearts host Motherwell this afternoon hoping to consolidate their runners-up place.

Vladimir Romanov, Hearts' Lithuanian owner, yesterday criticised the Scottish FA for again delaying their decision over whether Graham Rix - a convicted sex offender - is a fit and proper person to be Hearts' coach.

Romanov said the delay was not "fair" on Rix, a comment that some Hearts fans may have found ironic given that Romanov himself - alleged to pick the team - has not seemed sure whether Rix is fit to be in charge.

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