Today’s the big day out for FC Zenit St Petersburg and Rangers FC as they will contest the UEFA Cup final in the City of Manchester Stadium. Rangers, whose European campaign began back on 31 July in the Champions League second qualifying round, can expect noisy backing in the City of Manchester Stadium given their supporters have only a 350km journey south of the border from Glasgow. (The BBC has an article on Rangers supporters traveling from all over to take part in the festivities)
History is not on Rangers side as two Scottish teams have lost UEFA Cup finals – Dundee United FC in 1986/87 and Celtic in 2002/03. Zenit are hoping to follow in the footsteps of CSKA Moscow who beat Sporting Lisbon 3-1 in the 2004/05 UEFA Cup final to become the first Russian club to lift European silverware.
The clubs have a bit of shared history as Zenit’s current manager Dick Advocaat actually replaced Rangers boss Walter Smith when the latter ended his first spell as ‘Gers manager in the summer of 1998. Advocaat was successful in his first two campaigns in Scotland, guiding a rebuilt team to a domestic treble in 1998/99 and then a league-and-cup double the following year, when Rangers finished a record 21 points clear of Celtic. The next two seasons proved less successful, and Advocaat stepped down as manager to become the club’s technical director – with Alex McLeish taking over as manager – before the end of his final campaign in 2001/02.
Taking a quick look at the team news, the big story is that Zenit will be missing leading scorer Pavel Pogrebnyak through suspension. However, playmaker Andrei Arshavin, Czech international Radek Sirl and Dutch midfielder Fernando Ricksen return after their bans. Soon after moving to Zenit from Rangers in 2006, Ricksen and Zenit faced Rangers in a friendly whi ch became overshadowed by a foul by the 31-year-old former Dutch international on Chris Burke, which left the youngster sidelined for a month.
It’s highly unlikely that any hard feelings over that incident will surface today and the focus will be on the football. It is going to be interesting to see if Rangers staunch defending can hold off the potent Zenit attack that ripped apart Bayern Munich in the semi-finals. The Russian Premier League re-arranged their schedule to allow Zenit plenty of time off prior to this match. Zenit decided to warm up for the final with a 2-2 draw in a friendly against AZ Alkmaar. Rangers were not afforded the same luxury by the Scottish Premier League and were involved in a controversial 3-1 victory over Dundee United in the SPL on the weekend.
Rangers will have midfielder Kevin Thomson as he has come through a fitness test on his foot injury and declared himself fit. Striker Daniel Cousin will not be available though as he is banned after being sent off against Fiorentina. First-choice goalkeeper Alan McGregor is still out, as are Charlie Adam, Chris Burke and Stephen Naismith. DaMarcus Beasley, out since November with ligament damage, recently made his return to action and could be considered, as could Lee McCulloch.
If I had to go out on a limb and pick a winner, I would go with Zenit by a 2-1 margin. I think their pace and ball movement will challenge the Rangers defence and an early goal for Zenit could change the face of the match and force Rangers to eventually come out of their defensive shell. Ultimately I am hoping for what I always hope for — a wide-open attack-minded game.