Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bargain basement battle

Walter Smith, The Scottish Football BlogAlthough you’d never find a UEFA marketing man who’d admit it, the Champion’s League is not always about glamour and glitz.

Sometimes it’s dull and dismal. Ibrox might well be sprinkled with some of that old magic dust tonight but at first glance the meeting of Rangers and Romanian champions Unirea Urziceni has all the allure of a wet weekend in Cowdenbeath.

Most people probably won’t even have heard of them. Allow me to explain, they are one of Scotland’s two biggest clubs who once enjoyed a mediocre European pedigree but now content themselves with being one of the bigger fish in a European footballing outpost.

No, no. I jest.

Ranger’s opponents tonight are managed by former Chelsea star Dan Petrescu and they were shock winners of their domestic title. A new rule has been applied in Romania that sees foreign referees take over officiating duties for the last few months of the season.

In a strange coincidence this has seen two smaller clubs win the top division in successive seasons while a host of top clubs have been implicated in bribery scandals on a scale that would suggest Nicolae Ceau┼čescu’s ghost lives on in Romanian football.

Urziceni, only promoted for the first time in 2006, have grasped the opportunity of a level playing field with both hands. They are now officially the club from the smallest town to ever play in the Champion’s League. Indeed every inhabitant of the town could fit in Easter Road with room to spare. This is not a team used to the bright lights of European football.

Petrescu has been playing the country hick part to perfection since his arrival in Glasgow. He’ll know himself though that Rangers are likely to offer a more agricultural test for his players than Sevilla or Hamburg. Both sides have started with a win and a draw in what already looks to be one of the weakest Champion’s League groups of the season.

While Petrescu has played down his chances, Walter Smith has been trying to do exactly the opposite. The truth, as Smith will know, is that this is a budget team that have been well managed to achieve more than the sum of their parts. That will bring nods of recognition from the Ibrox coaching staff.

They say there are no easy games in Europe anymore. As some of the Scottish representatives proved at the start of the season that is not quite true. But, whatever Petrescu’s protestations, Rangers will not be expecting an easy game tonight. Rangers, as St Johnstone proved on Saturday, remain vulnerable this season, even striving to look any more than mediocre seems a considerable effort.

Experience, size and home advantage shrieks that this will be a Rangers win. Current form counters that this is as close a game as you’ll find in Europe tonight. We’ll see. It proves that even a wet weekend in Cowdenbeath can be intriguing though.