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Rangers' European party finally over

An English city has not seen such a Scottish invasion since the days when William Wallace was doing his rounds.

Manchester, a footballing town of world renown, was swamped with football fans perhaps like never before. An estimated 100,000 Rangers fans had headed down the motorway, manned buses and trains and, in the case of more far-flung fans, made sure they were there by boarding flights from across the world.

The city centre streets were flowing with Tennent's, Buckfast, Irn Bru and, yes, urine, well before the morning rush-hour traffic had even started after a celebration of Rangers' first European final in 27 years began.

Only 18,000 were guaranteed tickets, the rest sought spares, or made sure they had a decent vantage point from which to watch the big screens, though fans were definitely not amused when one broke down.

In the case of those who had begun the party early, perhaps they never got to see the game; the pavements around Piccadilly Gardens being littered with prone, slumbering forms.

Yet, wherever you watched, the overriding aim was to make sure that, as a self-respecting Gers fans, you were just there, though news that every hotel in Carlisle, 121 miles north-west of Manchester was sold out because fans wanted to be able to say they had been in England on the fateful night, stretched that perhaps a little too far. Few of those who did make it in could have been there when Rangers won the Cup Winners' Cup in Barcelona before just 27,401 fans back in 1972.

Not that fans of Zenit were hiding in Manchester, municipally twinned with St Petersburg. And indeed a sizeable Russian émigré contingent were boarding the train from London on the day of the game. While Rangers can call on Sir Alex Ferguson as a boyhood fan and close pal of their boss, Zenit have on their side no less a figure than long-time supporter Dimitri Mevedev, the recently elected president of Russia.

Scottish football had not had a day out like this since 2003, when the unmentionable team from the East End of Glasgow took over Seville. Walter Smith aimed to better that achievement by sticking to a formula that had got his team to Manchester in the first place. Nacho Novo's match-winning in the SPL against Dundee United counted for little to Scottish football's arch pragmatist, who left the Spaniard on the bench.

Dick Advocaat, facing the opponents he still calls 'my club', had to do without Pavel Pogrebnyak, the match-winner in the semi against Bayern Munich, whose suspension gave hope that David Weir and Carlos Cuellar would have an easier night. They didn't.

As expected, it was Zenit who began the brighter, their passing game taking on the banked walls of the Rangers defence. Smith had aimed to contain and then strike when Russian frustration and fatigue set in. Though it was lone Rangers frontman Jean-Claude Darcheville who had the best of the early chances, beating the Zenit defence but unable to slide in any team-mate, such was his isolation.

A session of bouncing and clapping from Gers fans was answered by some impressive Zenit pogoing as both sides began to settle into the game. But then nerves and perhaps the effects of a long afternoon's booze and sun session began to set in among the Rangers fans as Zenit threaded passes around, with Anatoliy Tymoschuk mastering matters from the base of the midfield.

Smith's blueprint of holding a team to 0-0 at half-time paid off as the intricacies of Zenit's passing hit the wall of Cuellar, Weir and, most outstandingly Sasa Papac, who kept Andrei Arshavin quiet on the right flank for 45 minutes. Rangers' best first-half chances came from set-pieces and though Steven Davis' free-kick caused some element of panic before being cleared, Zenit were rarely troubled. That said, by the break, Smith's Plan A was in full working order.

The second half looked to have caught light when Darcheville broke through to force a save from Malafeev and when the resulting scramble contained what looked like a Russian handball the hackles were rising among Rangers fans and players.

When Whittaker had two shots cleared off the line and then Arshavin rounded Neil Alexander only for Cuellar to head off the line we began to have a cup final on our hands. Should Zenit have had Pogrebnyak in their ranks, he surely would have done better than Fatih, whose touch let him down too often.

And then came the breakthrough. At last, after 282 minutes of Rangers neither conceding nor scoring it went to the Russians, stung into action. Arshavin's growing influence was key, as he bisected Cuellar and Weir to thread in Denisov, who beat Alexander with a very cool finish.

The blueprint was out the window and Smith responded by bringing on Novo for Papac and Lee McCulloch for the tiring workhorse Hemdani. This time there was no answer to Ibrox prayers.

Zenit's fans began to believe the trophy was theirs; being in the minority no longer mattered in volume terms, though singing a Celtic song was hardly the spirit required to win over vanquished opponents. It met with rancour from the Scottish majority, increasingly desperate as Rangers' push for a goal met a defence as massed as theirs had been in the opening hour.

When Novo blazed over and Zviranov scored from close range when time was all but done, the Rangers dream was over and their party was soured. It had been fun while it lasted.

OAN THE PEEVE: An amazing all-day display of Scottish drinking flew in the face of recent Manchester bye-laws preventing public boozing. It also halted the tram system, some even using the tracks as a place to store their 'bevvy'.

ZENIT STADIUM FANS VERDICT: After making an impressive racket all game to get behind 'Zeenit', Zenit fans chose to invade the pitch in a style not seen at a Manchester City ground since David Pleat's white moccasins in 1983. And that club anthem they have to listen to is truly chilling.

RANGERS STADIUM FANS VERDICT: Sometimes nervy and cranky amid a difficult 90 minutes, Rangers fans showed genuine sportsmanship when Zenit lifted the trophy. And that bouncing across three quarters of the stadium was a true sight to behold.

ZENIT VERDICT: The best team in the UEFA Cup won well, perhaps not as easily as 2-0 seems, yet their class on the ball and strong framework will make them one to fear in the Champions League next season.

RANGERS VERDICT: The blueprint couldn't last, but all credit to Walter Smith and his team for getting this far. Cuellar and Papac shone in defence but one striker will rarely beat a team as good as Zenit. Smith and Ally McCoist have a hell of a job to recover spirits in a search of a domestic treble that still has two weeks to be decided. They deserve some consolation from a fine season.

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