Smith fears gulf of Europe

Phil Gordon finds opening week is vital to Scotland's football season
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The Independent Online
A painful 24 hours in Glasgow last November brought home to Rangers and Celtic the gulf that has to be bridged before Scotland's best can gain acceptance into European football's elite community.

Juventus and Paris St Germain came to Ibrox and Parkhead respectively and between them scored seven goals without reply to extinguish the hopes of Scotland's big two for another year. Now, the Old Firm are back, stronger and, they hope, wiser.

The Premier Division kicks off on Saturday with both clubs, who have invested heavily this summer, expected to dominate the domestic scene as they did in their thrilling duel last season. However, such has been the decline of Scotland's standing that the top two teams must get some bothersome continental business out of the way first.

The recent record of Scottish clubs means that Rangers and Celtic, who have both won European trophies, must now go through the preliminary rounds in the hope of advancing to the stage where they feel they really belong. Celtic travel to Slovakia for their Uefa Cup tie on Tuesday with FC Kosice while Rangers play host to the Russians Alania Vladikavkaz a day later in the Champions' League.

The two sides spent an estimated pounds 15m on fees and wages in the close season recruiting foreign players. They have not done so simply to obtain domestic success, even though Rangers' pursuit of a ninth successive title - equalling their rivals' record under Jock Stein between 1966 and 1974 - has a talismanic effect on their supporters and Celtic are equally keen to deny them.

The respective managers Walter Smith and Tommy Burns know the bigger picture is more important. The Premier Division is merely the passport to Europe.

Smith, by his own standards, has spent cautiously, obtaining the Swedish defender Joachim Bjorklund from Vicenza and the midfielder Jorg Albertz from Hamburg at a cost of pounds 6.7m. Neither are names to set the heather alight, but Smith rightly figures he already has those in Paul Gascoigne and Brian Laudrup.

Neither was available for the two embarrassing Champions' League defeats against Juventus, 4-1 in Turin and 4-0 at Ibrox, while with them Rangers managed two creditable draws with Borussia Dortmund.

The Champions' League run of 1992-93, when they came within 90 minutes of the final, whetted Rangers' appetite but they still belong to a middle band of clubs who are finding it difficult to make the step up. The European Cup is the playground of the seriously wealthy, such as Milan, Juventus or Barcelona. The exception is Ajax, who have less financial muscle than Rangers but capitalised on a superb youth policy. Smith is trying to steer Rangers into that company.

Celtic's manager Tommy Burns has been honing his side over the last two weeks at a training camp in Holland, where they also played five games and scored 44 goals, before returning to Glasgow to defeat Arsenal 2-1 in a friendly. For Burns, the objective is just as clear; Europe is not an extra, it is a must.

He bought the Milan winger Paolo di Canio in the close season - plus the defender Alan Stubbs from Bolton - to add to his foreign striking contingent of the German Andreas Thom, Portugal's Jorge Cadete and Pierre van Hooijdonk.

Burns reflected: "In Scotland, we have a team that look for goals but we have to make a few alterations to that for European games. Paris St Germain came here last season and gave us a football lesson. I would like to think we have learnt from that and have moved on.

"PSG went on to win the Cup Winners' Cup and that is the level we want to operate at. I want the Celtic fans to enjoy the nights in Europe the way I did when I was a kid. I don't want them to turn up, just to see us go out in the early rounds."