WALTER SMITH has challenged his Rangers players to match their efforts from the first half of their Champions League campaign in the remaining three Group C matches and seize a chance to reach the knockout stages of the tournament.
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The Scottish champions maintained their unbeaten start in the competition with a 1-1 draw against second seeds Valencia at Ibrox last night, a result which kept them in second place in the group, two points behind Manchester United.
While Smith admitted to a degree of frustration that his team had not managed to grab a victory against Valencia, having missed several excellent chances in an absorbing match, he was hugely satisfied by their level of performance in following up the 0-0 draw at Manchester United and the 1-0 defeat of Bursaspor at Ibrox three weeks ago.
Rangers are now five points ahead of the Turkish champions, who remain bottom of the group after losing 1-0 to United at Old Trafford last night.
Unai Emery, the Valencia coach, believes Rangers' visit to the Mestalla Stadium on 2 November will now be the pivotal fixture in deciding who joins top seeds Manchester United in reaching the last 16 of the Champions League.
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Smith's primary target remains ensuring Rangers finish at least third in the group to qualify for the last 32 of the Europa League, but he now senses the prospect of further progress in the elite tournament in what is his final European campaign.
"The next game in Valencia is going to be a big one, but I prefer to look at all three matches we have left," said Smith. "If we play as well as we have done in the first three, then we have an opportunity to qualify for the knockout stage. But it's no more than that.
"The good thing for us is that if you look at last season's Champions League campaign, we were never anywhere near the level we have reached this season. There isn't a great margin of error in the Champions League. If you look at the last seconds of tonight's match, there were opportunities for both teams to win it.
"We are obviously in better spirits this season. The challenge now is to get more points on board and get European football after Christmas."
Rangers recovered from a sluggish opening last night to take a 34th minute lead through Maurice Edu, but were unable to capitalise on their advantage before the American put through his own net at the start of the second half.
"I'm a little bit disappointed that we didn't take all three points with the chances we created," said Smith. "The finishing of our lads has been good in domestic football this season, but it was just an unfortunate evening for us on that front tonight. But I was delighted with the way we played. In fairness, Valencia also created a number of chances, but I feel ours were the more clear-cut ones. We have got to be pleased that we managed to do that against a team who push forward and challenge you to do the same."
Smith was philosophical about Edu's misfortune in cancelling out his own goal and was encouraged by the midfielder's overall performance at the heart of an admirable team display.
"It was quite an evening for him," smiled Smith. "The own goal was unlucky but I was happy with his performance tonight. He has had a slowish start to the season but he is doing well for us now."
Valencia coach Emery was full of praise for Rangers and more than content to leave Glasgow with a share of the spoils. "I think the draw is a fair result," said Emery. "We have to be self-critical but we didn't expect Rangers to create as many chances as they did. We came here to win the game but we could easily have lost it.
"We have to recognise that Rangers are a very good side and I would now consider the next game could be a decider in who finishes second in the group."
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