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Game one and Gers must be victorious

Champions league defeat is not an option as Ibrox side need the cash

By Steven Beacom

Rangers will start their season tonight knowing they cannot afford to lose.

Normally must-win games don't come around until a few months into the campaign.

Not when you are an Old Firm outfit and especially not when you desperately need the millions of pounds that qualification for the Champions League group stages brings.

Tonight Rangers face Montenegrin outfit FK Zeta at Ibrox in the first leg of the Champions League qualifier.

Over 50,000 fans, including many from Northern Ireland, will fill the ground, demanding a convincing success to make the away leg nothing more than a valuable work-out.

Rangers have impressed in pre-season friendlies, not least in a 2-0 win over Chelsea on Saturday, but they know that the real fun starts now and will continue at the weekend when they visit Inverness Caledonian Thistle as the Scottish Premier League gets underway.

Given Celtic's domination in Scotland over the last two seasons, the heat is on Rangers to bounce back.

All the more so after the club yesterday posted disappointing annual financial accounts which showed their net debt almost trebled to £16.5million last season after they failed to reach the Champions League.

Another failure like that and Rangers will be in crisis.

Manager Walter Smith knows what is required - and he expects his side to deliver.

"I'm looking forward to getting back into European football," said Smith.

"The Champions League is a great stage and we all want to be there.

"The stakes are high in Champions League qualifiers and they can be very nervy. The pressure is on and it is up to us how we handle that pressure.

"We have to try and make a good start on all fronts this season.

"We have to put up a better league challenge and from all points of view we want to be competing in the Champions League.

"You see the difference it makes to Celtic's accounts in comparison to Rangers in the last few years."

Without question Rangers fans should be celebrating tonight against Zeta, who hail from a town with a population of about 3,000.

Indeed they should win by enough goals to make the return comfortable and then will come the third qualifying round encounter, which may prove more difficult. But for now the message Smith will give his players is: Win, and win well. They must not let him down.

Belfast Telegraph


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