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Oct 21, 2009

Nightmare before Christmas for Gers?

Rangers' European dream is slowly turning into a nightmare following a second successive heavy Champions League defeat at Ibrox.

Walter Smith's continental charge could well be over before Christmas after Group G minnows Unirea Urziceni delivered a crushing blow in Glasgow. Unirea boss Dan Petrescu claimed it would be disastrous if Rangers lost to his largely unheard of side but the 4-1 victory for the Romanians is a complete catastrophe.

But as the dust settles on the humiliating defeat for the Light Blues just what are the long-term ramifications of such a score?

Old Firm rivals Rangers and Celtic have both recently been touting themselves for a move to England or a European league in a bid to maximise their earning potential. They've long claimed they are too big for the Scottish game and have continually touted themselves to other leagues.

However, an embarrassing home defeat for the reigning Scottish champions to one of Europe's lesser lights hardly adds any weight to their argument which seems to crop up year on year.

It is no secret the reigning SPL champions are struggling financially and budget restrictions severely hampered Smith's summer recruitment policy. So it is understandable that Rangers would want to try to earn more cash elsewhere. But on the evidence of their latest European performance they would struggle to live with the likes of English Premier League strugglers Hull City.

Recent cash flow problems are still no excuse for such a worrying European result, particularly on the back of the 4-1 defeat they suffered at Ibrox to Sevilla in their last Champions League fixture. Conceding eight goals in two games at home is not acceptable and goal difference could well end up undoing Rangers in their uphill battle to keep their European challenge alive.

Smith knows how important a successful European run is for his club, particularly as he looks ahead at potential new signings further down the line. The experienced gaffer now faces an extremely tough challenge if he is going to revitalise Rangers' Champions League bid.

He will be only too aware that unless he performs his own version of The Great Escape he could be again forced to shop in the bargain basement section when the transfer window reopens.

Rangers will have a chance to make amends when they travel to take on Unirea at the start of next month before a home clash with Stuttgart and a trip to Spain to tackle Sevilla in December. But after claiming just one point from their opening three fixtures the Scottish champions need a mammoth effort if they are going to avoid a Champions League exit. They now prop up Group G with Sevilla top, Unirea second and Stuttgart sitting third, a place that at least guarantees a spot in the Europa League.

Everything seemed to be going according to plan for Rangers when a Pedro Mendes' drive looped in off Ricardo Vilana to give them the lead against Unirea. But Marius Bilasco slotted home an equaliser for the visitors before Steven Davis missed a penalty.

And after the break things went from bad to worse for the Scots. First of all a Bruno Fernandes flick deflected in off Kyle Lafferty before Lee McCulloch headed into his own net. Pablo Brandan then drilled in a free kick that found its way past Allan McGregor following another deflection off of Stevie Naismith.

Rangers seemed to collapse as soon as they lost the second goal and looked like a team lacking in real leadership. They looked nervous in possession and lacked any purpose in their performance and the result is sure to further dent their confidence levels.

Not that Petrescu was worrying as the reigning Romanian champions recorded their first ever win in European football.

Smith decided to go with his tried and tested 4-5-1 European formation with Kenny Miller again being handed a lone role in attack. Naismith, Mendes, Kevin Thomson, Jerome Rothen and Steven Davis formed the midfield five but they couldn't contain the Romanians.

Maybe the continued absence of Madjid Bougherra unsettled the Rangers back four. Lee McCulloch again deputised after the Algerian missed the weekend win over St Johnstone after reporting back late from international duty. Bougherra was forced out of the Unirea horror show after picking up a training ground injury and there is little doubt Rangers miss the former Charlton Athletic defender when he is not available, but surely they should be able to cope without the loss of just one player?

Smith admitted Unirea were the better side and they clearly deserved their victory. Perhaps Smith's biggest problem is that he has very few options in terms of changing personnel for Saturday's visit of Hibs at the weekend when they return to domestic duty.

The financial restrictions forced him to cull his squad drastically during the close season so he will pretty much need to rely on the same players again when they return to SPL duty. And it is a match they really need to win what with John Hughes' men just two points behind them in the league.

But Smith's biggest concern will be to try to rejuvenate his shell-shocked troops while somehow devising a plan to salvage their European hopes. The Rangers manager has been left with lots to ponder both domestically and on the continent.

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