Rangers FC overcame early nerves to secure a goalless first-leg draw against ACF Fiorentina at Ibrox and leave the UEFA Cup semi-final wide open ahead of next Thursday's return in Florence.
With a place in May's final at stake, tonight always promised to be a tense affair, and so it proved in a match in which scoring chances were at a premium as prudence overcame attacking instincts. The Viola started brightly and Rangers were indebted to Carlos Cuéllar early on, though the hosts came on strong after half-time and both sides will have been satisfied with their evening's work.
Rangers' UEFA Cup campaign has been built on solid defensive foundations and, despite a personnel reshuffle forced by a plague of injuries and suspensions, manager Walter Smith opted to stick with his tried and tested 4-1-4-1 system. Determined to avoid conceding a potentially fatal away goal, the hosts made their intent clear from the outset, refusing to commit too much in attack as they attempted to smother Fiorentina's formidable strikeforce with sheer numbers.
The Tuscan visitors accepted the invitation to pour forward and, on eight minutes, measured the range of their artillery with Martin Jørgensen's hopeful 30-metre drive flying over the crossbar. That was merely a warning, however, and five minutes later the Serie A side gave a far sterner test to their hosts. Zdravko Kuzmanović headed the ball square, five metres out, finding Giampaolo Pazzini who was only denied by a last-ditch tackle from Cuéllar.
The home side absorbed the early pressure and, midway through the first period, they launched their first meaningful foray deep into opposition territory. Jean-Claude Darcheville is known as The Rocket among Rangers fans, and lived up to his title by jetting past Jørgensen on the left wing before reaching the byline. However, the former FC Girondins de Bordeaux striker was unable to shake off the attention of Viola captain, Tomáš Ujfaluši – who overcame a thigh strain to start in central defence – and the chance went begging.
The balance of the match swung in Rangers' favour at the start of the second half as the noise from appreciative fans packed inside Ibrox became deafening. Still, genuine opportunities were at a premium as Fiorentina's disciplined defence, marshalled superbly by Ujfaluši, withstood the pressure. Rangers introduced the creative Thomas Buffel in a bid to find the killer pass to unlock the visitors, with Daniel Cousin also coming off the bench, but neither managed to dent Fiorentina's impenetrable back four.
Cesare Prandelli's men have made a habit of scoring away from home in this year's competition, but were restricted to set-pieces as they attempted to wrest control from Rangers. Adrian Mutu, whose exquisite free-kick against PSV Eindhoven in the previous round helped secure a 2-0 victory, had two similar opportunities late in the match but neither troubled Rangers' back-up goalkeeper Neil Alexander, and there is all to play for at the Stadio Artemio Franchi next week.