Rangers to face the pressure

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The Independent Online

Rangers face one of the most important games in their history tonight when they take on the Cypriot club Anorthosis Famagusta in the European Cup.

Walter Smith's Scottish champions take a 1-0 advantage into their preliminary round, second leg tie in Larnaca, knowing that elimination would mean failure to gain a lucrative place in the Champions' League line-up.

Six games against the likes of Juventus, Ajax or Real Madrid are at stake for the Ibrox chairman, David Murray, and the manager Smith, who has spent huge sums in recent years.

Smith has selection problems and will be without his inspirational Danish player Brian Laudrup for a game which will be played in temperatures touching 80 degrees.

Laudrup's absence could mean a Rangers debut for their Serbian defender Gordan Petric as one of three foreigners alongside the Englishmen Mark Hateley and Paul Gascoigne.

Alan McLaren, who yesterday trained alongside fellow injury victims Stuart McCall and Gordon Durie, is Rangers' biggest doubt, but Smith said: "I'll leave it late on him but I'm still hopeful."

A huge responsibility rests with Gascoigne, at pounds 4.3m, a record Rangers buy and the lion's share of their pounds 10m summer investment on four players.

The former Lazio player has completed a full match only twice since arriving at Ibrox in early July and his improving fitness could be tested to the full by the heat, when extra time could be needed.

A reputed bonus of around pounds 25,000 awaits him and each of his Ibrox team- mates if they triumph.

Apart from three Bulgarians - Ilian Kiriakov, Nicolai Todorov and Valentin Ignatov - and Sinisa Gogic, a Yugoslav who now holds Cypriot nationality, the Anorthosis players combine football with a variety of other jobs.

Their Bulgarian coach, George Vassiliev, is aware of the pressure on Rangers after two successive early failures in Europe - two years ago to a side he then coached, Levski Sofia, and last term to AEK Athens.

"We are confident because Rangers are under far greater pressure after failing for two years in a row," he said. "We respect them but we are not afraid."

Smith is not contemplating defeat. He expects the Cypriots to be cautious initially but is hopeful Rangers will later be afforded chances when the home side try to cancel out Durie's first-leg goal.

Rangers are hoping that their longest-serving player, Ally McCoist, continues his rich vein of form. Last Wednesday, McCoist ended his 28- month exile from international soccer with Scotland's winner against Greece after coming on as a substitute. Then on Saturday he scored his 300th competitive goal for Rangers. A third goal today would make him the Ibrox club's outright top scorer in European competition.

"He's not fully match fit yet because Saturday was his first 90 minutes for some time but it is great to have him back," said Smith. Security arrangements will be tight, with around 1,500 Rangers fans set to watch in a crowd of 9,500.