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Sep 14, 2010

Great Scots reunite in Battle of Britain

In a fitting finale for one of the most successful Scottish managers in the domestic game, Rangers boss Walter Smith will make his final push for European glory against a true great and close friend.

Rangers prepare for Old Trafford

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Smith will bring the curtain down on a trophy-laden Ibrox career at the end of the season and it's a campaign destined for several twists and turns. Rangers kick-off their Champions League charge against Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United at Old Trafford on Tuesday, with old Spanish foes Valencia and Turkish debutants Bursaspor also looking to progress from Group C.

Smith and Ferguson go way back, with the former twice serving as right-hand man to the Govan Godfather with United and with Scotland at the World Cup finals in Mexico.

Their latest reunion, and the return to Manchester for Rangers, has certainly captured the imagination of fans on both sides of the border. It's the first visit back to the 'Rainy City' in the North West of England for the Gers since the UEFA Cup final two years ago when their 2-0 defeat to Zenit St Petersburg at Eastlands was overshadowed by serious crowd disorder.

The travelling support will come under as much scrutiny (if not more) than their team next week. However, for the majority of the masses, this clash is more about what happens on the pitch than off it.

Certainly the battle on the touchline between two of the most respected managers Scotland has ever produced will almost in itself provide an interesting enough spectacle. Smith and Ferguson are clearly fully paid up members of the mutual appreciation society, with the compliments already flying north and south long before the first 'Battle of Britain' whistle.

Fergie has certainly never held back in his praise for Smith. "There are few people in the game with Walter's experience, knowledge and technical ability," he said. "Walter has gone on to prove himself as one of the best managers in Scottish history.

"The number of trophies he has won tells you that. The most important thing is that Walter has always kept his feet on the ground. He has always had a great love of the game and never lost that. These are the qualities that you need to be successful.

"Walter's already been on the phone, talking about tickets for Old Trafford. Like me, he's really looking forward to our games against each other."

Smith is well aware of the size of the European challenge he faces in his last season at the helm of the club. The former Scotland and Everton boss is so often subdued when he talks about his forthcoming encounters, but he let his guard slip a little as he looked ahead to the prospect of going head to head with his long-time mentor.

"It's a great game to kick off the campaign with and there's no question we couldn't have had a tougher one," he said. "But any footballer worth his salt would want to go and play at Old Trafford, so it is a game we will look forward to.

"United have a supreme pedigree when it comes to the Champions League and it is not often that they don't make it to the late stages. They have become so adept at picking up the points they need to make it through the group stage and that is what we have to look at. They achieve a great level of consistency in Europe, but we know all about them and it will be a challenge we look forward to."

Ferguson will no doubt savour another return to his home city of Glasgow in the second leg, in what has become a familiar journey north in recent times - this is the fourth time in the last seven years that United have been paired with the SPL title holders in the Champions League group stage.

Following their clashes with Rangers under Alex McLeish in 2003-04, Ferguson's side faced Gordon Strachan's Celtic in 2006-07 and 2008-09. Fergie will once again get the opportunity to revisit old haunts in Govan while his loyal band of followers from his adopted city of Aberdeen will no doubt make the 150-mile journey south for the fixture.

But first, Old Trafford awaits and, for Rangers, their main task will be to improve on last season's early Champions League form when they took just one point from their first three matches and conceded nine goals against Stuttgart, Sevilla and Unirea Urziceni. Progression from the group stages is the ultimate goal.

United will, on the other hand, be looking to put their hands on the trophy again for the first time since 2007-08 and, while the two clubs may be linked for now by an unwavering friendship between their two bosses, the gulf in class widens by the year.

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