Manchester takes a deep breath on Tuesday night and welcomes Rangers to Old Trafford hoping the Scottish hordes leave Piccadilly in a better state than on the club’s last visit when 150,000 supporters arrived for the 2008 UEFA Cup Final. Fewer than 4,000 will make the trip south this week for the Champions League group tie.
Scottish champions Rangers arrive having survived two years of financial problems that restricted manager Walter Smith’s spending and precipitated the departures of key players to England over the summer.
But having steered Rangers into the Champions League group stages for a second successive season former United assistant manager Smith can finally see light at the end of this tunnel. Indeed, Rangers have begun the new season with four Scottish Premier League victories on the run.
“Rangers have seen a number of players leave this summer, including top scorer Kris Boyd and midfielder Kevin Thomson,” says Andrew Muirhead, editor of Scottish football website, Scotzine.
“While they have a huge debt, two seasons of automatic qualification has seen the bank loosen the purse strings to bring in a couple of players.
“Rangers have struggled in the games they played so far this season, bar the game against Hibernian. Last Saturday they struggled to beat St. Johnstone, needing a controversial winner to take all three points.”
The Gers also beat Hamilton Academicals 2-1 at the weekend, although the side’s away form is a concern.
While top-scorer Boyd packed his bags for Championship side Middlesbrough over the summer and teenage defender Danny Wilson joined Liverpool, Smith can still call on the bulk of a Rangers squad that has eased to the Scottish title over the past two seasons.
In Steven Davis, James Beattie, Madjid Bougherra and Kenny Miller, Rangers has a core group players with significant Premier League experience. However, the much heralded John Fleck, once dubbed the “Scottish Wayne Rooney,” finds himself on the sidelines.
“Bougherra shackled Rooney in the World Cup in England’s game against Algeria. While Davis has Premier League experience with Fulham and Aston Villa,” adds Muirhead.
“Up front Kenny Miller is the man to watch as manager Walter Smith will likely play a 4-5-1 formation in Europe.
“Fleck was hyped up too much by the media north of the border. He is a good young player, but off the field issues have knocked him down a peg or two. The loan signing of Vladimir Weiss will see his chances limited even more.”
Qualifying from the group remains an outside bet for Rangers though, who finished last in 2009/10 and failed to drop into the Europa League. As a minimum Smith’s side will aim to beat Bursaspor to third place. After all, while Turkish club football is in the ascendency, Bursaspor will play its first season in Europe’s premier competition.
“If we can compete this season against Valencia and Bursaspor for second spot we are doing well,” says James Grant of Rangers Media.
“The biggest problem our club has is the lack of television revenue that allows a small club in Premier League club, such as Stoke, to offer £10 million for players.
“But if this side stays free from injuries it is better than the one you faced seven years ago.”
Rangers performance is also significant for Scottish football overall, with the club the sole representative in European football this season. Such is the paucity of performances north of the border that it is inevitable the country’s co-efficient will fall and places in the Europa and Champions Leagues will be lost.
“Scottish Football needs a boost,” adds Muirhead.
“However the damage has already been done with Hibernian, Dundee United, Motherwell and Celtic being knocked out of Europe.
“The co-efficient will drop no matter what Rangers do this season and in reality I doubt they will do much.”
But even if disappointment for Rangers is the outcome on Tuesday night Manchester is unlikely to see a repeat of rioting visiting fans. After all, Scottish football has largely enjoyed a reputation for peaceful travelling support. The UEFA Cup final aside.
The biggest concern, says Muirhead, is whether the Greater Manchester Police will take a hard-line on Rangers fans after the 2008 final – especially those fuelled with alcohol.
Indeed, while Rangers and United supporters have rarely shared the relationship held between Celtic and Ferguson’s side there are enough mutual connections to make sure the evening ends well.
Not that Rangers fans have lost any love for Scotland’s greatest manager, who played for the club between 1967 and 1969.
“Most Rangers fans have no affinity with Manchester United,” adds Grant.
“Sir Alex, although a player and a Rangers fan, will be remembered as Aberdeen’s manager when they challenged the Old Firm’s dominance of football in Scotland.
“And as they say in Glasgow, he’s ‘a greetin faced b*stard'”
To the Sassenachs south of the border it’s an acceptable jibe – so long as United win of course.