Rangers still hampered by domestic ambition

Scotland's champions have again made no progress in the European Cup. David McKinney considers their failure
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The Independent Online
Where do Rangers go from here? The Glasgow club have been champions of Scotland for the last seven years, but their failure to make an impression in the Champions' League has placed them firmly at a crossroads where they will have to decide in which direction their ambitions lie.

They have proved without question that they are at the top of the Scottish tree, but again have been found wanting in the European arena, the very area where David Murray, the chairman, craves success. A draw against Steaua Bucharest at Ibrox on Wednesday killed off their hopes for another season, although they did have the consolation of reaching the Champions' League itself after coming through the preliminary round against Famagusta of Cyprus.

In other seasons they have fallen at the first hurdle, although their appearance in the league sections this time merely highlighted inadequacies in the Rangers side which are seldom exposed in domestic football. Hard work and character can achieve only limited success, and those Rangers supporters who roundly cheered John Brown for his crunching tackles against Juventus and Steaua clearly have not yet grasped the fundamental issues at work here.

The big danger for Rangers is that those supporters and the players themselves become blinded by their determination to overtake Celtic's run of nine consecutive League wins, forsaking European ambitions. The Scottish League title can be won by gathering indifferent victories, the European Cup cannot.

Murray spent close to pounds 10m on players over the summer, including the pounds 4.3m which brought Paul Gascoigne from Lazio, yet the evidence of their European run would suggest they are no better placed to compete there than they were seven years ago. Against Steaua they were exposed several times by mobile and skilful opponents who had the awareness to drift in and out of different positions as required, while Rangers stuck to a more rigid formation.

The suggestion of Dumitru Dumitriu, the Romanian coach, that Gascoigne and Brian Laudrup were European-style players was an accurate assessment, as those two took their skills where they were needed, but were constantly left frustrated as their Scottish colleagues failed to appreciate their work.

Time and again Laudrup worked himself into a good position and found no help. For Rangers to progress, Walter Smith, the manager, requires players who are more sympathetic to the workings of the creators.

Gascoigne has also shown he can create for Rangers, although Dumitriu felt that he cannot sustain his form over 90 minutes. If that is indeed the case, Smith must decide where best to play the Englishman. In an attacking role, he showed against Steaua, Celtic and Hearts that he can score goals, the problem is filling the hole he leaves in the midfield, a gap exploited by Aberdeen in the Coca-Cola Cup semi-final and again in the league.

Smith could buy again and indeed there are suggestions that he is interested in Mikel Beck of Fortuna Cologne. The Danish striker would perhaps fill the gap which has been left in the Rangers' front line since the departure of Mark Hateley to QPR.

The problem is likely to require major surgery, and while purchasing players is no guarantee of success, Smith's best bet might be a long-term approach to bring quality young Scottish players through the ranks.

Sadly, Rangers' European failure is an indictment of the whole of club football in Scotland at a time when, conversely, the national team and Under-21s have qualified for the latter stages of the European Championships.

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