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Smith seeking last laugh over Rangers critics

SoccerNews in UEFA Europa League 14 May 2008


Rangers must defy the odds and their critics if they are to overcome stylish Russian side Zenit St Petersburg and lift the UEFA Cup here on Wednesday.

Since being denounced as 'anti-football' by Barcelona's Lionel Messi earlier this season, Walter Smith's side have had to endure a constant barrage of dismissive comment over the prudent, counter-attacking style that has got them into their first European final in 36 years.

But as Barcelona contemplate a season without silverware that has cost head coach Frank Rijkaard his job, Rangers stand on the brink of a UEFA Cup triumph that could well be complemented by a domestic treble.

Smith, who has engineered a remarkable renaissance in Rangers' fortunes since quitting Scotland to return to the club in the middle of last season, is a mild-mannered character.

But there is no doubting that the barbs directed at a side that has beaten Panathinaikos, Werder Bremen, Sporting Lisbon and Fiorentina to get to the final have ruffled his feathers slightly.

“I'm told Rangers play anti-football or rubbish football,” he said. “If we're so bad how come the teams saying these things can't beat us? If they're so good they should be taking a look at themselves and asking that question.

“I just hope they're still saying these things about us on Thursday morning when we're the UEFA Cup winners.”

In contrast to the criticism Rangers have received, Zenit, managed by former Rangers boss Dick Advocaat, have been winning plaudits for a quick-passing style centred on the string-pulling qualities of Andrei Arshavin, the Russia playmaker being billed as a potential star of Euro 2008.

Advocaat will have to do without suspended striker Pavel Pogrebnyak, the joint top scorer in this season's competition with ten goals.

But having trounced the tournament favourites Bayern Munich 5-1 on aggregate in the semi-final, the Russians will still be seen by many as sure-fire bets to go on to lift the trophy.

Rangers, however, will effectively be playing a home game with tens of thousands of their fans making the short trip south intent on securing tickets and turning the City of Manchester Stadium into a sea of blue.

Zenit defender Fernando Ricksen, a firm favourite of those fans during his six years at Ibrox, recognises that they could play a significant role in helping Rangers to offset the technical superiority of the Russian champions.

“It's too bad I'm not playing on that side because I know how much of an influence they can be,” the Dutchman said.

“We can play good football and we have to show that again but it's a one-off game, anything can happen, so we will see how it goes.”

Rangers' chances of claiming Scotland's first European trophy since Aberdeen, then managed by Smith's old mate Alex Ferguson, won the now-defunct Cup Winners Cup in 1983, have not been helped by the Scottish Premier League's intransigence.

SPL bosses refused to extend the domestic season to allow Rangers to complete a backlog of fixtures without compromising their chances in Europe.

As a result, while Zenit, who have not played a league match since April 19, were relaxing in the Netherlands over the weekend, Rangers were forced to play Dundee United in a high-pressure SPL match on Saturday and Smith has been left sweating on the availability of key midfielder Kevin Thomson, who suffered an injury in the 3-1 win.

“I wanted the game against United to be moved because I wanted clear heads,” Smith said.

“The injury to Kevin is another complication but the physio tells me he should make the final. It's about rest now as much as training for the players.

“I want them to enjoy the final and a break at the weekend would have given them psychological respite.”

Given the meanness of Rangers' defence, a penalty shoot-out conclusion to the final must be a distinct possibility and the omens on that score are good for the Scots, who have won two already this season – in the Scottish Cup semi-final against St Johnstone and the UEFA Cup last four clash with Fiorentina.

Goalkeeper Neil Alexander has twice been the hero in those encounters and the 30-year-old stand-in for injured first-choice Allan McGregor would relish the chance of an encore on Wednesday.

“When it comes to penalties, it's a bit of a lottery and it can go either way,” he said. “I've been lucky since I've been at Rangers and I just hope it continues.”


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