Smith spots upset on Euro horizon

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The Independent Football

Rangers do not usually expect to have free time at this stage of the season. Few at Ibrox would have thought there was a silver lining to being knocked out of the Scottish Cup three weeks ago by Hibernian, but for Alex McLeish it will come in the shape of a refreshed team to face the Spanish inquisition.

If McLeish's players were breathless from chasing shadows last Wednesday against Villarreal in the first leg of the Champions' League first knockout round, then a rest weekend ahead of the return match will help. While the Scottish Cup continues without them, Rangers believe that Europe can salvage a wretched domestic season.

The evidence may be stacked against them after it took an own goal from Juan Manuel Pena to snatch a 2-2 draw from a contest in which Rangers were outclassed on their own pitch, principally by Juan Roman Riquelme, Villarreal's Argentinian play-maker. However, McLeish, his players and even Walter Smith, the Scotland manager, have a sneaking feeling that Rangers can create an upset in Spain.

"We are not out of this Champions' League yet," McLeish insists. "We're now in our ninth game and we're still alive. The players will take heart from the fighting spirit that they showed. It's an awkward tie for Villarreal now. This is not finished."

Unlike everyone who was supping from Ibrox's fountain of optimism, Smith - who almost took Rangers to the Champions' League final in 1993 - watched the occasion unfold from the comfort of a television studio in London. Yet that did not dilute his admiration for his old club's tenacity, even if he overlooked Rangers' best player, Chris Burke, by leaving him out of the Scotland squad to face Switzerland at Hampden on Wednesday.

"Of course it's going to be tough but I saw Villarreal against Everton earlier in the season and they appeared nervous on their own ground," said Smith. "Everton troubled them in front of their own fans and Rangers have a chance, no doubt about it. I believe they can surprise people."

No one symbolises the refusal to give up more than Thomas Buffel. The Belgium player overcame his own unhappiness at being left on the bench by McLeish to come on as a late substitute and chase the lost cause that led to Pena's own goal.

"Villarreal will not be sure how to approach the game because we have enough about us to snatch one goal," said Buffel. "I believe we can still go through. Sure, our equaliser was lucky but at that stage of the night did it really matter how it went in?

"I've reached this stage before when I was at Feyenoord only to lose. I remember that game against Newcastle, and I don't want the same feeling."

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