Rangers' topsy-turvy season taking a heavy toll on embattled Ally McCoist

SPL leaders Motherwell in town for cup tie as big fish continue to struggle in small pond

At home to the leaders of the top flight: it is the plum draw for a lower league club, especially one stumbling through the opening throes of its season, as poor on the pitch as it is troubled off it.

Tonight Motherwell, top of the Scottish Premier League, journey into Glasgow to take on Third Division opponents, except they will head for a ground where they have not won for 15 years to play Rangers, in front of the largest crowd they will have experienced this season. The bookmakers have the Third Division side as favourites to reach the fourth round of the Scottish League Cup. Wrong, says Ally McCoist, Rangers' manager. Wrong again, suggests Stuart McCall, his Motherwell counterpart. There are times in Scotland this season when it is hard to know which way is up.

This will be the first time Rangers have faced SPL opponents since they were expelled from the top tier. Motherwell, after consulting supporters, were one of the clubs that voted in favour of the Glasgow giants being relegated. The matter is far from settled – a three-man tribunal are on the verge of completing an inquiry into the use of employee benefit trusts and the club may be stripped of the league titles won in that period – but the game goes on. Only it does not appear to be any easier for Rangers on the field.

McCoist turned 50 on Monday and, finally, he looks it. There has always been an exuberance to McCoist, as a player, a TV pundit, then as a coach under Walter Smith's guidance and even as a manager when he succeeded Smith as the main man. To see him glowering on the touchline last week, watching his side labouring against Queen of the South in the Ramsdens Cup – a competition Rangers fans can hardly have known existed a few months ago – was to see a man visibly wearied by his experience.

Some 18 players have left. Of the XI that lined up against Motherwell in their penultimate SPL fixture, two, Lee McCulloch and Lee Wallace, are likely to feature tonight. But still the side beaten by Queen of the South contained six full internationals; there should still be more than enough to prosper at this level. Queen of the South were the better side and Rangers have also failed to beat Peterhead, Berwick Rangers and Annan Athletic this season.

Yet the crowds keep coming. The average home league attendance is over 46,000 – the 16th best in Europe. There were close to 24,000 for the Queen of the South game. Tonight 25,000 are expected, which is another oddity as it's their biggest match of the season.

It's a topsy-turvy world. "Favourites can get beaten," said McCoist, using language his predecessors can never have contemplated. "The cup competitions provide an ideal situation for us to gauge how we are placed when we play against the top teams in the country. It won't be the end of the world if we don't win the tie but I believe we can."

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