A maiden Rangers goal, infuriating Lionel Messi, a befuddled goalkeeper not knowing he’d won, a Dutch reunion and missing the chance of a lifetime.
No matter what way you cut it, Rangers’ long and winding road to Manchester and the 2008 Uefa Cup final had a little bit of everything in it.
Flickering into life in July in the Champions League qualifiers, Europe’s second competition quickly went from a “distraction” to a date with destiny for Walter Smith’s side.
Twelve years on from Rangers’ appearance against Dick Advocaat’s Zenit St Petersburg in the final, BBC Scotland takes you through the club’s route to Manchester.
It was an unlikely and somewhat unintentional scorer that set Rangers on their way in Europe in the summer of 2007.
Veteran Scotland defender David Weir was not renowned for scoring and when he lobbed a pass forward against Zeta of Montenegro, few would have expected it to reach the net. It did and Weir had scored his first Rangers goal having joined six months earlier.
Zeta were despatched 3-0 on aggregate and Red Star Belgrade were overcome 1-0 over two legs. The group stage beckoned with Lyon, Stuttgart and Barcelona lying in wait. Easy, then?
“It was heady times and very quick progression,” said Weir. “Straight into the Champions League and you get a draw like that. Lyon were an unbelievable team, Stuttgart as well, and Barcelona were on a different level.
“We started the group really well. The 3-0 win in Lyon must rank up there as one of Rangers’ best results of all time.
“Barcelona – whenever you play them it’s going to be special, but the front three they had was [Lionel] Messi, [Thierry] Henry and Ronaldinho. We drew 0-0 at Ibrox and it was backs against the wall. They weren’t very happy with the way we played but it was functional and we were getting results and we had seven points after three games and thinking we had half a chance of qualifying.”
Messi had criticised Rangers’ “anti-football” approach but Weir insists Smith was unperturbed. “Walter would say it was just about finding a way to win the game,” he said. “That was our best way of winning.”
‘It started being a bit of a distraction’
Barcelona beat Rangers 2-0 at Camp Nou; Stuttgart avenged their opening defeat at Ibrox with victory in Germany; then Lyon got their revenge with a 3-0 win in Glasgow.
As a result, Rangers were consigned to the Uefa Cup as the club pushed for honours on four fronts.
“The league was always the priority,” Weir said. “Europe started as being a bit of a distraction and, although never happy to lose we wouldn’t have been too upset if we’d gone out in the last 16.”
Rangers’ journey almost ended before that stage. After drawing 0-0 at home with Panathinaikos in Glasgow, the Greek side led 1-0 in the second leg until Nacho Novo lashed in a late equaliser to secure an away-goal win.
Germans Werder Bremen were next and Rangers got their first victory of the tournament – 2-0 at Ibrox with goals from Daniel Cousin and Steve Davis – before a 1-0 defeat away.
“I’ve not got a great memory for individual games, but I remember every one of those ties, particularly the away legs,” Weir recalled. “I remember one incident in the Bremen game when Allan McGregor makes an unbelievable save. I remember thinking, ‘that’s in’ but he manages to get his fingertips to it and touches it on to the bar.
“You don’t imagine you’ll get to the final but you think, ‘we’ve got a chance here, we could go through here tonight’.”
‘Sink or swim’ for Alexander
McGregor’s European adventure would soon come to an end. After keeping two clean sheets in the 2-0 aggregate quarter-final win against Sporting Lisbon – Jean-Claude Darcheville and Steven Whittaker both netting in the away second leg – the Scotland cap would pick up an injury in a league defeat by Celtic that would end his season.
Enter Neil Alexander, who had joined from Ipswich Town a year after Weir had arrived from Everton.
A Fiorentina side led in attack by Christian Vieri and Adrian Mutu stood between Rangers and a first Uefa Cup final appearance.
“I knew it would be different to the domestic games,” said Alexander, who played in both goalless legs of the semi-final. “The first leg was probably one of the most important clean sheets of my whole career.
“We went there to frustrate them. We knew our best chance would possibly be a penalty shoot-out. It was just like the Alamo. We were just defending for our lives, hanging on.”
The shootout ensued and got off to a bad start for the visitors. Captain Barry Ferguson’s kick was saved and suddenly Rangers were up against it.
“After Barry’s miss, you’re thinking, ‘I’m going to have to save two here’. I just saved one to get us back into it and Christian Vieri managed to blast his over the bar.”
It was down to Novo to send Rangers through to the final. Both teams had taken four penalties each and the Spaniard converted to send the visiting fans into raptures.
“I didn’t realise when Nacho stepped up that this was the winning penalty,” Alexander recalled. “On the video, you see me running in the background – this red shadow – and it’s just a split second later than everybody else.
“I was so focused on the next penalty. It took me about two seconds to realise, ‘what’s going on here? We’ve won’. The celebrations in the dressing room were unbelievable.”
Weir added: “It was a special group of players and there was a special feel about it. You just got the feeling it could be our night, even when Daniel Cousin got sent off late in the game. It was a fantastic night and a fantastic outcome.”
No final flourish with Advocaat reunion
By the time Rangers arrived at the City of Manchester Stadium to take on a Zenit St Petersburg side managed by former Ibrox boss Advocaat, they had secured the League Cup and were still in contention to win both other domestic trophies.
“I just wanted to be part of this historic event and say I played in that final,” said Alexander. “The biggest occasion of my life. I’ve got the jersey, the gloves. Everything is very much cherished.”
And Weir said: “You had the potential to be the most successful Rangers team in history. It was potentially life-changing.”
With an estimated 100,000 Rangers fans in Manchester, Zenit prevailed 2-0 with Igor Denisov and Konstatin Zyryanov goals causing the damage in the second half after a tense opening period.
“Zenit looked the more offensive team, but obviously at this stage I’m disappointed to have lost,” manager Smith said at the time. “We’ve had a terrific tournament. In the end, I can have no complaints.”
While midfielder Whittaker insisted Rangers’ hectic schedule of games could not be used as an excuse, defender Carlos Cuellar suggested that the Scottish Premier League’s decision not to postpone their game against Dundee United in the build-up had hampered their chances.
Rangers’ league form took a downturn in the final weeks of the season, culminating in a final-day triumph for Celtic. Smith’s side had one more assignment and squeezed out Queen of the South in a thrilling Scottish Cup final.
And Weir added: “There was definitely a sense of what could have been. We never managed to win the league or the Uefa Cup but I think when you look at that 68-game season and you look at the number of games we won and in difficult circumstances then I think the group deserves a lot of credit.”
Name Rangers’ starting XI from their 2008 Uefa Cup semi-final win in Florence
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