Rangers pay heavy price for a bad miss

Scottish clubs will see no action in Europe after Christmas. Phil Gordon surveys the damage
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The Independent Football

The Uefa Cup has played havoc with the fixture list in the Scottish Premier League for the last few seasons. You would think everyone would be glad to see the back of it, but no. When Rangers go to Kilmarnock today, and Hearts make the short journey to Livingston it will be clearing up long after the guests have left the Christmas party. The SPL rearranged the fixtures to accommodate Rangers and Hearts after their European efforts, but it will be the last time this season they will have to do so.

The Uefa Cup has played havoc with the fixture list in the Scottish Premier League for the last few seasons. You would think everyone would be glad to see the back of it, but no. When Rangers go to Kilmarnock today, and Hearts make the short journey to Livingston it will be clearing up long after the guests have left the Christmas party. The SPL rearranged the fixtures to accommodate Rangers and Hearts after their European efforts, but it will be the last time this season they will have to do so.

For the first time in four seasons, there is no European football after Christmas for Scottish fans to look forward to. While the Champions' League has been a perennial source of frustration, the Uefa Cup has offered a rare chance to rub shoulders with some of the continent's top clubs.

In 2002, Rangers reached the fourth round before losing to Feyenoord, who went on to win the trophy. A year later, it was Celtic's epic journey to Seville, where they lost the final to Porto in extra time. Last season, Martin O'Neill's side reached the last eight, removing Barcelona en route. The Uefa Cup's diet of Thursday night matches has had an impact in the constant rescheduling of SPL games, but no longer.

While Hearts always knew their chances of reaching the last 32 were slim after being drawn in the toughest group of all - encompassing Feyenoord and Schalke, who have both won the trophy - it did not minimise the pain of seeing Basle snatch their qualification place in Group A just a fortnight after John Robertson's side had won in Switzerland.

For Rangers, though, the consequences could be far deeper. Alex McLeish's side blew a chance to earn some much-needed revenue by losing at home to Auxerre. After winning their opening two games, it was harder for Rangers not to qualify than it was to miss out on one of three places in a group that essentially only contained four teams once Polish misfits Amica Wronki were discounted.

The price of missing out could be the sale of Jean-Alain Boumsong to Newcastle United. Rangers were furious that their former manager, Graeme Souness, went public with his £7m offer for the French defender on the morning of the Auxerre match, but they will still probably do business with him for the player they picked up for nothing last summer.

It hardly helped that Souness was then preaching to his countrymen on Friday about where they are going wrong. "Rangers and Celtic are enormous clubs and for them to do well at the highest level in Europe they they have to be playing their football in this League down here," he said. "The money that they would generate would enable them to attract top men from other parts of Europe."

Souness failed to mention that his previous club, Blackburn Rovers, were turned over by Celtic in the Uefa Cup in 2002-03, as were Liverpool. Martin O'Neill feels he has been unfairly criticised for failing to get out of a Champions' League group this season that contained Milan and Barcelona, but even he is uncertain if his achievement 18 months ago will be repeated. "It will be a fairly lengthy time before an SPL side contests a European final, " said O'Neill. "Scottish teams do not contest Uefa or Champions' League finals too often so when it comes around it has to be savoured. We got to the quarter-finals last season so our own record in Europe over the last couple of years has been pretty creditable. The bottom line is there is no European football for any SPL club after Christmas. Those who criticised us over the Champions' League seem to forget that our last three results were a victory and draws against Barcelona and Milan."

The upshot could be that, with no European distractions, the SPL title race could be a close one. Not just between Celtic and Rangers, but with Aberdeen, Hibernian and Hearts, who are in pursuit of Uefa Cup places.

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