Rangers must fight for European future

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The Independent Football

Alex McLeish admits he has a squad running on empty as Rangers try to ensure they do not sacrifice their European future tonight.

Going out of one competition hurts the Ibrox supporters enough, but two would be too much to bear. Three successive defeats have already ended those Champions' League ambitions, but should McLeish's side serve up a fourth, at home to Panathinaikos, in the final Group E fixture, then the consolation of a Uefa Cup place would be thrown away as well.

The Scottish champions are wondering if they have enough left in the tank to cross the finishing line. McLeish, without key players such as Ronald de Boer and Craig Moore in this campaign, is waiting on Shota Arveladze to decide if his ankle injury can be risked.

Rangers need the striker to augment Michael Mols who has been short on goals and confidence. "I have been missing chances recently because I am tired," said the Dutchman yesterday. "I have had to play a lot of tough games recently and I could not get a rest as I had to stay on as we had no back-up strikers on the bench."

It is a far cry from the rude health that Rangers were in when they met Panathinaikos in September. Then, they were poised to brush the Greeks aside just as they had VfB Stuttgart on the opening night. Rangers were just three minutes away from a 1-0 success in Athens before Pantelis Konstandinidis hit an equaliser that toppled them from the summit.

"You always dissect moments and we knew at the time that one could be costly," said McLeish yesterday. "However, I thought we played well against Manchester United here and in Stuttgart, even though we lost both. The only time our performance was poor was at Old Trafford.

"We have been stretched to the limit by injuries. You cannot compete in the Champions' League without your best players and we have had to do so without De Boer and Moore. I will leave it until near kick-off before deciding on Arveladze but if he can make one big effort for our cause, it will be worth it. However, we will be up for this."

All Rangers need to secure third place is a draw and McLeish feels the backing of the Ibrox crowd will give them the edge on the Greeks. "We always knew the odds would be against us in this group, it was an achievement just to get past the qualifying round," he said.

His biggest decision will be whether to keep faith with Chris Burke, the 20-year-old winger who has illuminated some recent Scottish Premier League displays, or go with his experienced recruits, such as Emerson and Nuno Capucho, who have been found wanting in this competition.

"It is important for the club to stay involved in Europe," Mols said. "I would have preferred if it was still in the Champions' League, because it has more profile, but the Uefa Cup is still a good stage."

Rangers (possible 4-3-3): Klos; Ricksen, Berg, Khizanishvili, Ball; Emerson, Hughes, Lovenkrands; Burke, Mols, Capucho.

Referee: H Fandel (Germany).

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