Smith's greatest achievement as Rangers make Uefa Cup final date with Advocaat

WALTER Smith last night savoured the most fulfilling moment of his football career as Rangers reached the Uefa Cup final with a dramatic penalty shoot-out defeat of Fiorentina in Italy.

The Ibrox club, reduced to ten men after Daniel Cousin was sent off ten minutes from the end of extra-time, triumphed 4-2 from the spot after 120 minutes at the Artemio Franchi Stadium failed to produce a goal from either side in the second leg of the semi-final. Nacho Novo scored the clinching spot-kick.

Cousin will now miss the final when Rangers play Zenit St Petersburg, coached by their former manager Dick Advocaat, at the City of Manchester Stadium on 14 May. Zenit's 4-0 defeat of Bayern Munich means Rangers will again face Russian opponents in their first European final since they defeated Moscow Dynamo to lift the Cup-Winners' Cup back in 1972.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"It's probably my most satisfying achievement in football," said Smith. "To put a team together as we have done in such a short space of time and for them to show the spirit and determination they have throughout this season has been tremendous.

"I thought I was at the stage of my career where European finals were well past me, so I'm delighted from my own point of view. But I'm more delighted for the club, for the chairman (David Murray] and chief executive (Martin Bain] and everyone who has supported us through this period. When you see the level of commitment we put in to keep the game at 0-0 tonight, it was fantastic."

Rangers had already won penalty shoot-outs against Dundee United in the CIS Cup final and St Johnstone in the Scottish Cup semi-final this season.

In Florence, Rangers players and fans react after victory.

Their prospects appeared bleak last night, however, when their first kick from captain Barry Ferguson was brilliantly saved by Fiorentina goalkeeper Sebastien Frey. That was cancelled out, however, by Neil Alexander's save from Fabio Liverani before Christian Vieri sent his effort over the crossbar. It left Novo to net the winning penalty.

"I was worried when it went to penalties, because David Moyes had told me Fiorentina were excellent at them when they beat Everton in an earlier round," said Smith. "When their keeper saved our first kick from Barry Ferguson, I feared the worst. It takes courage for any player to step forward and take a penalty in those circumstances, so all credit to all of our players for that. I was fairly confident Nacho would score his, because he practices them all the time in training."

Smith is normally loath to single out players for praise, but he paid special tribute to veteran defender David Weir who was outstanding alongside the faultless Carlos Cuellar in central defence. Weir, who will be 38 four days before the final in Manchester, played despite suffering a groin injury last Sunday which was expected to keep him out. "I can't speak highly enough of Davie," said Smith. "He is one of the main reasons I'm so delighted. At his age, it is fantastic what he is doing. He has been a steadying influence on our defence and has been tremendous for us."

Rangers had to spend most of the evening on the back foot last night, but restricted Fiorentina to few clear-cut scoring opportunities. "We were aware we would be under a fair amount of pressure," said Smith. "But our team defend very well and we are very difficult to score against. You have to give our team credit and I don't think Fiorentina could have done much more."

In an ironic twist of fate, they will now come face to face in Manchester with Advocaat – the man who took over from Smith at Ibrox in 1998 to improve Rangers' fortunes in Europe. "The final is something to look forward to now, especially as we are facing Dick Advocaat's team," said Smith. "Dick still has a lot of friends at our club, but it would be a special occasion whoever we were playing."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Rangers' result last night means that the SPL season will now be extended, to conclude on Thursday, 22 May instead of Sunday, 18 May and Rangers will have to play four games in eight days – with the Scottish Cup final against Queen of the South taking place less than 48 hours after the final league match. Bookmakers Ladbrokes now make Zenit the 8-11 favourites to lift the Uefa Cup, with Rangers evens. Rangers are 2-1 to complete the quadruple.