Rangers FC may be one of the stories of this European season but Walter Smith believes opponents FC Zenit St. Petersburg have already registered its key result.
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Rangers FC may provide one of the stories of this European season but manager Walter Smith believes FC Zenit St. Petersburg have already scored the campaign's key result.
Emphatic confirmation of the Russian champions' élite status came with their semi-final second leg destruction of FC Bayern München, which Smith hailed as "exceptional". The question occupying the Ibrox boss between Tuesday's press conference at the City of Manchester Stadium and Wednesday's UEFA Cup final will therefore be how to better Dick Advocaat's "favourites".
'Best in Europe'
"I think Zenit are favourites because of their result in the semi-final," said the former Scotland manager, who returned to the Rangers job in January 2007. "For Zenit to beat Bayern, who are well ahead in the Bundesliga, in the manner they did, makes them favourites for this game. You only have to look at the semi-final matches – 1-1 in Munich was an excellent result but 4-0 at home was exceptional and probably the result of the season in Europe. That's how good they are."
Smith went as far as to say that Zenit would have troubled the field in the UEFA Champions League had they entered that competition this season. It was after exiting the blue-riband European tournament, with a December defeat by Olympique Lyonnais, that Rangers' continental adventure really began. "After a shaky start against Panathinaikos [FC], we picked up and managed to get good results to get us into the final. It is a nice surprise for us."
The Round of 32 triumph over the Greek side set a precedent, with a tight home leg in Glasgow being the prelude to an odds-defying success on foreign soil. The ties against Panathinaikos, Sporting Clube de Portugal and ACF Fiorentina were settled in the return fixture; the one exception to the rule, the Round of 16 defeat of Werder Bremen, owed itself to two goalkeeping errors at Ibrox followed by a heroic defensive display in Germany.
Will the same winning formula account for Zenit? Smith's answer suggested that backs-to-the-wall Rangers may yet be tempted on to the front foot. "We have defended very well in a lot of games, especially away, but in a final you have to go and win the game. So we may approach this match differently from other ones. The final throws up different situations from two-legged affairs.
"In the knockout rounds we have played, we have been home then away and that has dictated a lot of the way we have played. In the final it will be the circumstances of the evening, how well we play, which dictate whether or not we win." A Rangers victory would put a glittering cap on the 60-year-old's managerial career. The very thought of it is intoxicating. "It will be a very difficult game, but once you get here, you realise just how much it means to everyone. It starts to take over everything else."