Red Star Belgrade 0 – 0 Rangers, The Marakana (Red Star Stadium), Belgrade 28th August 2007 Champions League Qualifying Round 3.
An 89th minute Nacho Novo winner at Ibrox two weeks earlier had given Rangers the chance to progress to the group stages of the Champions League. Having reached the last 16 of Europe’s elite club competition two years previously with arguably one of the worst Rangers teams in recent history (Ian Murray and Hamed Namouchi in the starting XI), hopes were high. Villarreal were the team than knocked Rangers out on that occasion and only on away goals.
The previous season had seen another respectable European run to the UEFA Cup last 16 despite the domestic turmoil and the arrival of Paul Le Guen. Walter Smith had arrived and steadied the ship and with a full summer transfer window behind him several acquisitions had been made to upgrade on the previous playing staff. Smith brought in David Weir, Lee McCulloch, Steven Naismith, Kevin Thomson, Steven Whitaker, Carlos Cuellar, Daniel Cousin and Jean Claude Darcheville to strengthen the starting XI with the likes of Kirk Broadfoot and Andy Webster added to the squad returning a Scottish (and Rangers supporting) core. With Alan McGregor, Alan Hutton, Steven Smith, Barry Ferguson, Charlie Adam, Chris Burke and Kris Boyd already at the club it was clear the direction Smith wanted to go in. Sasa Papac proving to be the only previous signing worthy of the Rangers jersey.
After the money invested into the Paul Le Guen era it was essential that Walter Smith’s men qualified for the Champions League. Having to buy almost two new squads in two seasons made a hefty dent into the club’s finances. Made worse by the lack of money made trying to off load the previous seasons flops, thankfully the club was in a good position from youth academy graduates at the time.
Despite the club being in transition there was a very definite plan of how the team was going to be set up both md-week and on a Saturday. Kris Boyd started almost every weekend but very rarely even made an appearance off the bench during the week. The solitary striker’s roles being rotated between Cousin and Darcheville. Asked to run themselves into the ground for an hour then get replaced depending on the score line.
Against Red Star and almost every other team in the run, Rangers would set up in a 4-5-1. The team setting up with a back four of Hutton (first choice until his January departure to Spurs when Whitaker took over), Papac, Cuellar and Weir with McGregor in goals. The midfield was a very workman-like Hemdani (protecting the back four), Whitaker (right), Thomson, Ferguson and McCulloch (left). Jean Claude Darcheville started the game up front on his own, expected to run the channels and hold the ball up until support came from midfield. This was the starting XI for most European games, by the time Hutton left Rangers had signed Steven Davis and Christian Dailly, clever signings as they offered versatility centrally and in wider areas, again both players blessed with a great work ethic and commitment.
The game itself was almost identical to every other European game. Tight, nervy and with a few heart stopping moments at either end of the park. Both teams had chances to break the deadlock, McGregor, who to this day amazes me wasn’t picked up by a bigger English Premier League team following his European form, was exceptional. Making several close range and 1 v 1 blocks. Whilst Darcheville carved out a couple of openings for Rangers to put the tie beyond doubt, also missing a good chance he had created for himself. Darcheville’s biggest flaw could be the quality of his finishing, you almost knew when it wasn’t going to be his day. Neither side could make the break through, Rangers were always going to be limited in their chances whereas Red Star had to break two hard working lines of defence and a keeper in the form of his life.
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Rangers fans saw the same line up, the same tactics and the same performance time after time in Europe. Why change something that isn’t broken? In a competition where clean sheets are so important and knowing the limitations of your resources to maximise results Rangers were exemplary. Twelve clean sheets in nineteen European games, European giants would be happy with that return especially when you consider Rangers had the champions of Germany, France and Spanish giants Barcelona in their Champions League group.
Red Star felt hard done by, claiming that the better team had gone out. I’m not so sure. Red Star didn’t manage to score in 180 minutes of football against Rangers and more pertinently, history proves that Rangers did ok in Europe that season, even if it wasn’t good for their fans nerves!