Walter Smith needs investment for Europa League bid

DUBLIN, brace yourself?

To paraphrase Peter Drury's memorable line of television commentary which greeted Rangers' dramatic penalty shoot-out success in Florence three seasons ago, securing a fateful Uefa Cup final trip to Manchester for the Ibrox club, the Irish capital is now the projected final destination of their current European adventure.

But, although recent history illustrates that elimination from the Champions League can be followed by unexpected progress to the climax of the secondary tournament for Walter Smith's team, their supporters may not be rushing to book their flight and ferry tickets just yet.

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For, as the Rangers manager was at pains to point out in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday night's 1-0 defeat against Manchester United at Ibrox, he is currently ill-equipped to hold any serious hopes of reaching the Europa League final at Dublin's Aviva Stadium on 18 May.

While Rangers have managed to restore some pride with their Champions League performances in the current campaign, a minimum requirement after the humiliation suffered in the tournament last year, their limitations remain exposed.

The remarkable defensive and tactical discipline Smith's players have shown in their Group C fixtures can only take a team so far. In this instance, that is to justify their status as third seeds and earn a place in the knockout phase of the Europa League. To go any further, however, they need significant reinforcements.

As it stands, Smith does not anticipate funds being made available to him when the January transfer window opens, a period in which clubs are entitled to register three new players in their squads for European competition.

Rangers already know they will be unable to add Nikica Jelavic to their Uefa list, the Croatian striker ruled ineligible to play in the Europa League for the rest of the season because of his former club Rapid Vienna's involvement in the competition.

So while the phrases 'makeshift' and 'threadbare' are often lazily and inappropriately applied to a Rangers squad which contains 18 full international players, there is unquestionably a lack of depth to Smith's resources which leaves him vulnerable to any sustained collection of injuries and suspensions.

Without Sasa Papac, Madjid Bougherra, Andy Webster, Maurice Edu and Kyle Lafferty on Wednesday, those difficulties were laid bare.Teenager Kyle Hutton was drafted for only his second starting appearance for the first team, while the still unfit James Beattie was among a short-handed quota of substitutes.

Unless Rangers are exceptionally fortunate in keeping their first-choice players largely injury-free for the rest of the season, then Smith is clearly justified in holding severe reservations over their prospects of success in the Europa League.

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The financial restrictions still being imposed on Rangers by the Lloyds Banking Group are a source of simmering frustration for the 62-year-old who has consistently stressed he will not be performing a U-turn on his decision to step down as manager at the end of the season. The latest takeover talk surrounding the club, involving venture capitalist Craig Whyte and previously failed bidder Andrew Ellis, has left Smith tellingly unmoved.

While Rangers' most recently recorded debt of 27.1 million remains a concern in the current climate, Smith would be of the view that it is a false economy not to invest further in playing resources and try to build on the success achieved on the pitch over the last two years.

Rangers earned 14 million from their participation in the Champions League last season, a figure they will eclipse in the current campaign despite a much-reduced wage bill at the club. It is a revenue stream likely to be denied to the SPL title holders beyond this season as Scotland's tumbling Uefa co-efficient ranking takes effect.

With one swipe of his right boot in the 87th minute on Wednesday night, Wayne Rooney not only formally ended Rangers' hopes of reaching the last 16 of the Champions League, he also cost them the €400,000 they would have earned for securing another point against Sir Alex Ferguson's men.

So while Rangers' final Champions League Group C fixture against Bursaspor in Turkey on 7 December is now a dead rubber in terms of qualification, the fiscal implications of every game cannot be lost on the Ibrox club who will at least bank another €200,000 for making it to the last 32 of the Europa League.

The draw takes place in Nyon on 17 December and Rangers will not be short of potential opponents who will provide an attractive tie on 17 and 24 February next year. Dutch champions Twente Enschede and Aiden McGeady's Spartak Moscow are among those who will also drop out of the Champions League into the secondary tournament, while Porto, VfB Stuttgart, CSKA Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg have already secured progress from the group stage of the Europa League. Those in line to join them include Manchester City, Liverpool and Sevilla.

It is a fairly impressive cast list, all of them with greater reserves of senior players at their disposal than presently enjoyed by Smith.He is to be commended for the way he has shaped his men into a competitive force again this season with a 5-4-1 formation which has, at times, allowed Rangers to be more than the sum of their parts.

For the fourth time in the last six seasons, they will play in Europe after Christmas, a decent record over a period which has encompassed such uncertainty off the field for the club. The route to Dublin, however, is likely to be strewn with obstacles which even Smith's odburate band of brothers cannot overcome.