RANGERS have an opportunity in Manchester tonight to elevate Scotland into football's equivalent of the European aristocracy, a distinction that has so far eluded all but six countries.
In the event of Walter Smith's side lifting the Uefa Cup against Zenit St Petersburg, Scotland would become only the seventh to have captured all three major European trophies. The triumph would complement the European Cup won by Celtic in 1967 and the two Cup Winners' Cups secured by Rangers in 1972 and Aberdeen in 1983.
In doing so, the Scots would join some fancy company, the only other countries to have completed the treble being Italy, Spain, England, the Netherlands, Germany and Portugal.
It is a measure of the difficulties the lesser nations have to overcome in pursuit of glory on the continent that only the universally recognised strongholds have succeeded until now. It is also an indicator of Scotland's extraordinary efforts in this arena that the country should be contending for membership of the elite.
Give the rarity of such chances, Rangers' presence at the City of Manchester Stadium just five years after Celtic contested the final of the same tournament in Seville would give anyone the impression that such achievement is becoming habit-forming.
But, for Rangers and the thousands of supporters who have descended on the metropolis in north-west England, it is a once-in-a-generation experience, 36 years having elapsed since the club's triumph over Dinamo Moscow in Catalonia. The improbability of the occasion has almost certainly contributed to the unanimous conviction among the Ibrox side's followers that their time is once again at hand.
This refusal to countenance defeat by the Russian champions, in the charge of the former Rangers manager, Dick Advocaat, will have derived from Rangers' starting-point in Europe this season, outsiders of the four teams in their Champions League group and considered very likely to be jettisoned at the conclusion of the six-match series.
Instead, they were sharing the lead in the section with Barcelona at the half-way stage, having beaten Vfb Stuttgart and Olympique Lyonnais and drawn with the Spanish side. It was enough to secure third place and a 'parachute' into the Uefa Cup.
Since then, they have been second favourites in every one of the four home-and-away ties in the knockout phase of the tournament, confounding expectations on every occasion on a push that has taken them past Panathinaikos of Greece, Werder Bremen of Germany, Sporting Lisbon of Portugal and, finally, Fiorentina of Italy.
All but the Greeks, it should be noted, come from countries already in what may be called the European hall of fame. In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the Rangers supporters who have invaded the city should be so optimistic. "They cannae get beat noo," seems to be the common rationale.
Rangers' opportunity underlines Smith's own view that Scottish football is unfairly maligned and that success for his team tonight would greatly benefit its image.
"Scottish football will go on, regardless of what happens here," said the Rangers manager. "But reaching this stage, a European final, does bring more credibility to the game in Scotland. Sometimes people elsewhere don't think it's a good standard in Scotland, so it's nice for one of our clubs to get here and show that one of our teams can still compete for European trophies."
Contending successfully tonight would make Rangers the first Scottish club to win two such prizes. Celtic's Champions Cup victory in 1967 was followed three years later by defeat by Feyenoord in the final of the same tournament in Milan, and they were, of course, beaten finalists in the Uefa Cup – against Porto – five years ago. Rangers themselves contested three Cup Winners' Cup finals before the demise of that competition, but lost to Fiorentina in 1961 and to Bayern Munich six years later.