Rangers 0 - 4 Liverpool: Smith's concern grows as heavy loss bodes ill for European push

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ONLY those Rangers supporters with a masochistic streak would have had their appetite for Champions League football at Ibrox this season increased by what they witnessed at the stadium on Saturday.

The chastening nature of this friendly defeat laid bare the growing disparity between Scotland's leading clubs and those from the English Premier League as Rangers suffered their heaviest defeat in front of their home fans since losing by the same scoreline in a Champions League group game against Juventus in 1995.

Even allowing for the notorious unreliability of pre-season fixtures in assessing what lies ahead in the coming months, there was compelling evidence on Saturday to suggest Liverpool will yet again be one of the leading contenders to lift European football's greatest prize in Rome next May.

Rafael Benitez's side have a third qualifying round tie against Standard Liege to contend with but can be considered a safe bet to win it. The same cannot be said of Rangers' prospects of reaching the group stage of the tournament. Even if they overcome Kaunas in Lithuania tomorrow night in the second leg of a second qualifying round tie delicately poised at 0-0, Walter Smith's team will require a significant improvement in form to defeat Danish champions Aalborg in the next stage.

There was no mistaking the Rangers manager's growing concern over the condition of his side in these formative weeks of the campaign when he entered the media room following a defeat as comprehensive and humbling as the scoreline suggests.

A near-capacity attendance at Ibrox ensured this was a successful financial enterprise for Rangers, but Smith's mixed feelings beforehand on the value of facing such a high standard of opposition in between the two legs of the Champions League qualifier proved prescient.

Many of his players still appear to be suffering a hangover effect from the generally anti-climactic conclusion to last season's marathon on both the domestic and European front, while the absence of their two most influential players, Carlos Cuellar and Barry Ferguson, is proving a potentially critical handicap.

Despite his reservations about the fixture, Smith had hoped playing Liverpool would at least spark a level of intensity among his players which had been so dismally lacking in their stalemate with Kaunas last Wednesday night.

While there were glimpses in the first half of Rangers finding that sharpness, they still found themselves outpaced and outmanoeuvred by quicker and more incisive opponents. In the second half, albeit with both teams making a procession of substitutions, there was simply no solace for Smith as Rangers were completely and almost embarrassingly outclassed.

"We didn't take a lot from the game, other than we were well beaten," said Smith. "There are no excuses. The first half was possibly the best for us, but the second half was poor and Liverpool were just better than us.

"There is a balance to be achieved in pre-season but, looking at the result, we would probably have been better not having this game. It was a disappointing result and performance.

"The gap between Scotland and the top English clubs has been like that for a few years now and we have managed to compete better before. We handled it better last year when we played Chelsea here, so that's no excuse.

"We are just not reaching the same level as we did even at the start of last season. We have to get to that very quickly. I don't think morale will be a problem after losing like this, our basic problem is to get back to a level of play which will allow us to compete better."

In a first half which was at least competitive, Liverpool opened the scoring courtesy of an uncharacteristic error from Allan McGregor. The Rangers goalkeeper's uncertainty in dealing with a shot from Damien Plessis saw him succeed only in pawing it into the path of Fernando Torres who accepted the gift to tap in from close range.

Nacho Novo should have equalised just before the interval when, after linking up well with Kenny Miller, he took the ball around goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri but then took a needless extra touch in front of an open goal, allowing Andrea Dossena to make a goalline clearance.

Smith withdrew five players at half-time who are certain starters in Kaunas tomorrow night, choosing to limit the exertions of David Weir, Sasa Papac, Lee McCulloch, Kevin Thomson and Miller. Liverpool also made a handful of changes, but it was only the home team who suffered a deterioration in their level of play.

A mistake by Kirk Broadfoot presented Liverpool with their second goal, swept home with some style from around 16 yards by David Ngog, one of their substitutes. A cousin of former Rangers player Jean-Alain Boumsong, the French youth international was signed for 1.5 million this summer, little more than loose change for one of the Premier League's big four.

Yossi Benayoun made it 3-0 from close range after McGregor did well to parry a shot from Christian Nemeth, Liverpool by this stage having made further changes to remove Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt. If those wearing their shirts were now less stellar names, the action was no less one-sided. The rout was completed from the penalty spot, Xabi Alonso converting after Broadfoot's clumsy foul on Nemeth.

Rangers: McGregor (Alexander 62), Weir (Webster 46), Papac (Dailly 46), Hemdani, Thomson (Furman 46), Novo (Boyd 62), McCulloch (Adam 46), Miller (Darcheville 46), Broadfoot, Lafferty (Velicka 71), Whittaker. Sub not used: Bougherra.

Liverpool: Cavalieri (Reina 62), Dossena, Skrtel (Hyppia 46), Keane (Nemeth 58), Gerrard (Spearing 58), Torres (Ngog 46), Plessis (Alonso 46), Benayoun (Pennant 71), Arbeloa (Darby 46), Kuyt (Insua 58), Carragher (Agger 46).