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Sep 18, 2009

Old Firm embark on European campaign

Scotland's remaining European representatives Rangers and Celtic suffered mixed fortunes during their latest continental charges. While the debate about Scotland's failure to reach the World Cup finals continues to rumble on the Old Firm are expected to restore some much needed pride for the country.

Rangers at least did their bit for the nation with a solid opening Champions League performance. Walter Smith can be proud of his troops who produced a rousing second-half display to claim a morale boosting 1-1 draw away to Stuttgart in the Mercedes-Benz Arena.

But their arch rivals Celtic failed to do their bit in the quest to really bolster confidence within the domestic game following their Europa League disappointment away to Hapoel Tel Aviv. That blow comes on the back of early European exits for Aberdeen, Hearts, Motherwell and Falkirk.

The Bhoys dropped out of the Champions League running following a controversial defeat at the hands of English Premier League rivals Arsenal. That forced them into the new Europa League format alongside Hapoel, Hamburg and Rapid Vienna.

Parkhead boss Tony Mowbray was hoping to recover with a strong Europa League campaign but is now licking his wounds following the Euro slump. Mowbray was even left to blame the searing heat in Israel after watching his side surrender a one goal advantage in the 2-1 defeat.

"The conditions were very demanding, covering that extra yard became more difficult," said Mowbray. "Our concentration levels in the last 15 minutes weren't as high as they had been but let's not take anything away from our opponents. Hapoel are a good team, they played well and probably deserved the win.

"We're really disappointed to lose in the manner we did with the two late goals but I can't fault the players. I thought they stuck to the game plan very well. But we were up against a decent side and you could feel they were building up momentum."

Mowbray, who left Scott McDonald on the bench until the closing stages, must have felt his side were in total control when striker Georgios Samaras put them ahead. But late goals from Nemanja Vucicevic and Maaran Lala claimed a vital opening victory for the home side.

The Celtic gaffer's tactics appeared to be perfect with Samaras operating as a lone striker but the late collapse will certainly have given him further cause for worry.

Mowbray will demand an instant response when they play host to Rapid Vienna in the East End of Glasgow at the start of next month in their next Europa League encounter. The Austrians top Group C after their comfortable opening victory over Hamburg. The reigning SPL title holders Rangers were spared the trouble of having to qualify for the money-spinning group stages of the Champions League - a fact Rangers boss Smith must have been thankful for. And maybe even Scotland boss George Burley, who has been handed a stay of execution even though the Tartan Army missed out on a trip to South Africa, may have taken some inspiration from the performance of the Light Blues.

The Ibrox club, who reached the UEFA Cup final in 2008, kicked off their ninth assault on the Champions League away to Stuttgart and despite a stuttering start to their Group G clash they finished the fixture strongly.

Smith was forced to rule out veteran skipper David Weir and it looked as if his side were going to miss his experience. The wily gaffer opted to go with just Kenny Miller as the lone striker while he selected a five-man midfield using Kevin Thomson as the anchorman.

Pedro Mendes was named as captain in Weir's absence and he was picked alongside Steven Davis in the centre of the pitch. But the Rangers tactics failed to work and it was no surprise to see the Germans dominate the opening exchanges. They were rewarded for their superiority when they took the lead in the 18th minute thanks to a fine finish from Pavel Pogrebniak.

Markus Babbel's men continued to build on their impressive start and carved out several more scoring chances with Brazilian-born Cacau looking particularly dangerous. But Stuttgart failed to build on that positive start, eventually allowing Smith's troops to claw their way back into the match after the break.

Madjid Bougherra produced a touch of magic with a little over ten minutes to go when he smashed a stinging volley home beyond Jens Lehmann. That was before Steven Davis nearly grabbed a famous victory only for his low shot in the closing minutes to come back off Lehmann's right hand post.

But Smith praised his men for their fighting spirit in an encouraging second half response.

"We started rather slowly and Stuttgart were the better side in the early part of the game," said Smith. "I was disappointed with the goal we lost which was a bad one. It was an unfortunate slip from Sasa Papac but we might have cleared easily beforehand.

"But I felt we started to come into the game closer to half time and then in the second half we were excellent creating three or four good chances to score. In the end maybe we were a little bit unfortunate not to just shade the game after what was an excellent second-half performance.

"When you come away from home in your first game it's important to try to take something and we deserved to do at least that."

Sevilla top Group G after their 2-0 victory over Romanian side Unirea Urziceni but the Spaniards will face a tough test when they visit Ibrox next.

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