See, being eliminated from the UEFA Champions League isn’t the end of the world.
Rangers and Sporting both finished third in their respective Champions League groups, not good enough to advance to the knockout round, but enough to earn a place in the UEFA Cup round of 32.
Both teams have taken full advantage of their continued European stay, and now face one another in the UEFA Cup quarterfinals.
Rangers needed a late goal in the second leg of their round of 32 against Panathinaikos to advance to the last 16, where they faced Werder Bremen. In the first leg at Ibrox, Daniel Cousin scored shortly before halftime, and Steven Davis’ goal shortly after the restart gave the SPL leaders a 2-0 win over the Bundesliga title chasers. That two-goal advantage would hold up, as a solitary goal by Diego wasn’t enough to keep Rangers from prevailing.
Sporting, who finished third behind Manchester United and Roma in Champions League Group F, strolled into the round of 16 with a 5-0 aggregate win over Swiss side FC Basel.
In the round of 16, Sporting faced Bolton, and though they fell behind inside a half hour at the Reebok, the Portuguese side put the tie in their favor with a 69th minute goal by Montenegrin midfielder Simon Vukcevic.
Vukcevic’s goal had Sporting on course to go through, as the second leg in Lisbon was goalless through more than 80 minutes. But, the icing on the cake came in the 85th, when Bruno Pereirinha found the net to seal a place in the quarters.
Both sides are in the midst of chasing multiple trophies. Including their UEFA Cup exploits, Rangers are in the running for a rare quadruple. They’ve already wrapped up the CIS Insurance Cup, having beaten Dundee United on penalties, and are a replay win over Partick Thistle away from a berth in the Scottish Cup semifinals. Walter Smith’s side could take a big leap towards wrestling the SPL title away from two-time defending champions Celtic this weekend as well, as they could stretch their three-point lead to six (with an game in hand) with a win in their matchup at Ibrox on Saturday.
On the other hand, Sporting, while 20 points behind Porto in the league, and four points out of a Champions League qualifying round place, are looking for a cup double, as they’re also in the semifinals of the Cup of Portugal.
The first leg will be played at Ibrox next Thursday, with the second in Lisbon the following Thursday.
The goal for Rangers will be to grab an advantage like they did against Werder Bremen, but even though Sporting aren’t a very good away side, they were able to come from behind to grab that valuable draw at Bolton, so if Rangers take a lead, they can’t afford to lose it.
It’ll be worth watching to see what lineup Smith goes with up front, as he has an embarrassment of riches up front, with leading scorer Kris Boyd, who hasn’t been a regular part of Smith’s lineups in Europe, Cousin, Jean-Claude Darcheville, and Nacho Novo, who’s seen his amount of starts dwindle this term, but has still scored several important goals.
For Sporting, there’s not as much of a selection quandary, as the likely pairing will be veteran Liedson and newcomer Rodrigo Tiui, but the real danger man might be young playmaker Vukcevic, who’s ably filling the hole left by Nani’s departure for redder pastures.
Will Vukcevic and Liedson be enough to lead Sporting past Rangers and into the semifinals? Or will Smith’s embarrassment of riches help the ‘Gers move one step closer to the jackpot?