It’s over before it begun then, for this season. Last season, you’ll remember, Rangers were involved in a dreadful case of fixture congestion as they fought to walk off with the UEFA Cup, the Scottish Cup and the Scottish Premier League. As it turned out, they managed just one out of three (and that was the one that they probably cared the least for) and hardly endeared themselves with the behaviour of people claiming to be their supporters in Manchester after losing the UEFA Cup Final against Zenit St Petersburg. Fortunately, though, being one of the two powerhouses of Scottish football earns them a pernnial shot at the Champions League, even if they have to start the season in August. They should be good enough for a place in the group stages, shouldn’t they?
Well, not this year. In the first major surprise of the European football season, Rangers are out of the Champions League, beaten 2-1 this evening in Lithuania by the largely previously unheard of FBK Kaunas. Having only drawn the first leg at Ibrox 0-0 last week, Rangers were still largely expected to cruise through to the final qualifying round of the competition and a match against AaB of Denmark, and it all appeared to be going reasonably well for them when they took a first half lead, thanks to a Kevin Thomson goal in the first half. Rangers, however, have become type-cast by a relentlessly negative form of football when up against it in Europe, and their complacency showed this evening. Nerijus Radzius brought FBK level just before half-time and, with Rangers’ lead now down to away goals, the visitors tried to sit back and play out a 1-1 draw. They survived their big warning when Marius Cinikas hit the crossbar for FBK ten minutes into the second half, but there was something strangely inevitable about Rangers’ capitulation. They seemed lethargic going forward and demonstrated their complete over-reliance on captain Barry Ferguson in their lack of creativity going forward in a match which was, ultimately, played against semi-professionals at a stadium little better than a municipal athletics track. With three minutes left, Linas Milibaitis headed home from a corner with the Rangers defence putting in an early contender for the annual “Best Impression Of The Statues At Easter Island (Football Division) Award”, and that was that.
This defeat is a highly significant one for Rangers. Not even making the group stages of the Champions League means that their European season is over before it has begun. There’s no consolation prize of a place in the UEFA Cup for getting knocked out as early as this. Financially, it’s a massive blow. Far away from the riches of the EPL, Rangers and Celtic are more dependent on their English rivals on European TV money to be able to spend the sort of money that they want to spend on players. By their own standards, they have spent a reasonable of money on their squad this summer, and now there is only the SPL and Scottish Cup left to play for. The result also turns the pressure up on Walter Smith by a notch. On top of last season’s minor implosion, his authority at Ibrox has now been undermined still further. If Rangers don’t have a strong start to the season in the league (and there has been nothing throughout their entire pre-season to suggest that they will), Smith’s position will surely become untenable.
The result is a bigger surprise, considering FBK’s current form. They have been the Lithuanian champions for seven of the last eight years, but they currently sit in sixth place in the eight team A Lyga, having lost three of their first six league matches. More ironically (and, from the non-Rangers supporting Scottish fan’s perspective, funnier still), FBK are sponsored by Heart Of Midlothian’s owner, the eccentric millionaire Vladimir Romanov, who uses the club as a surrogate team for Hearts. Their opposition in the final qualifying round, AaB, won their first Danish league championship in almost a decade last year. They have managed the group stages of this competition once before, in 1996. For FBK, it’s uncharted territory. For everyone that saw what happened in Manchester last May, there might just be something of a sigh of relief. For all of us, here are the goals from last night, courtesy of the ever-helpful guys at 101 Great Goals.