Rangers FC hope that history is on their side as they prepare for the UEFA Cup final, although it is FC Zenit St. Petersburg who will kick off as reluctant favourites.
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For a moment in Tuesday's press conferences, Dick Advocaat and Walter Smith enjoyed an impromptu meeting by the door. Laughing and smiling, they seemed oblivious to the cameramen that swarmed around them, yet when floodlights replace flashbulbs and their sides run out for the UEFA Cup final at the City of Manchester Stadium, the bonhomie will be cast aside. Only one will prevail. "You can never tell how a final can go," said Rangers manager Smith. "We have been playing two legs, and have been at home first and having to go away for the second leg. So the final will probably be different from the games we have had before."
Neutrals may hope so. Rangers' eight matches in the UEFA Cup since parachuting in from the UEFA Champions League after the group stage have brought only seven goals. Zenit alone scored twice as many in the knockout stages, culminating in a 4-0 defeat of FC Bayern München in the semi-final second leg that Smith labelled "one of the best results in European competition this year". It also earned Zenit the favourites' tag, but Advocaat believes Rangers can hardly be considered underdogs. "You cannot come to the final of the UEFA Cup, the League Cup, the Scottish Cup and hopefully become champions too, without being a balanced team who can play football," said the Dutchman. "Don't try and make Rangers worse than they are."
The Scottish outfit may profit from the loss of Pavel Pogrebnyak through suspension, and Zenit needed the Russian international to rescue a 2-2 friendly draw against AZ Alkmaar at the weekend. Smith could only envy such a relaxed run-out as his side are in the midst of a hectic period of eight games in 22 days and were pushed hard by the manager's former club Dundee United FC before sealing a 3-1 win. "We would have liked a weekend off to catch breath, but now we are over that and the gap between playing on Saturday lunchtime and Wednesday night is probably the longest we have had for a while," said Smith, who faces a nervous wait to see if Kevin Thomson recovers from a foot injury.
Rangers will be made to feel at home in Manchester, and will provide the majority of the influx of over 100,000 fans expected to descend on the city. Enough coaches have been chartered in Glasgow to stretch 16km bumper to bumper along the M74, though Advocaat is unperturbed, adding: "Both teams deserve respect; we have both beaten some of the world's top teams." Only the coach's former employers Rangers stand in their way now, the Scottish side hoping to emulate their UEFA Cup Winners' Cup final triumph over FC Dinamo Moskva 36 years ago. Advocaat and Smith will no doubt share more words at the end of Wednesday evening – but only one will be smiling.