The gap with United is getting bigger for Rangers

The Scottish champions Rangers lag behind their English counterparts Manchester United despite better support.

When the champions of Scotland met their English equivalents in the 1992/93 Champions League, it was Glasgow Rangers and not Leeds United who were favourites in a game predictably billed as "The Battle of Britain".

The big-spending Scottish club were better supported and better resourced than Leeds and duly triumphed 2-1 home and away, a late Eric Cantona goal providing a consolation in the second leg for the English at Elland Road.

Rangers thus advanced to the group stage, where they remained unbeaten in all six games. The winners of the group went straight to the European Cup final and Rangers were unfortunate to be pipped by a single point by a great Marseille side.

The format of the Champions League has changed several times since. Rangers are again champions of Scotland, but the Manchester United side they will meet tonight at Ibrox in match day five of the first group stage finished runners-up in England last season.

But such is the gulf between the calibre of players at both clubs, United are clear favourites to win.

"We just hope that we get out of the game without getting too much of a hiding," Mark Dingwall of the Rangers fanzine Follow, Follow, said.

Dingwall is not being defeatist, but shares the same realism as his side's manager Walter Smith. He made no secret of the fact that he was going to play as defensively as possible at Old Trafford in September. His tactics worked as Rangers held United to a surprise goalless draw.

The gap between the top English and Scottish sides has grown exponentially since those games between Leeds and Rangers 18 years ago.

The first season of the English Premier League was in 1992/93 when a flood of television money led to that league being able to attract better players.

Attendances boomed, stadiums were redeveloped and expanded and larger television deals cemented the Premier League as the most lucrative on the planet.

North of the border in Scotland, Glasgow's two biggest clubs could only watch in envy as their own domestic league stagnated.

Celtic and Rangers, Scotland's "Old Firm" may be suffering from a slight decline in attendances, but still enjoy better support than several big English clubs such as Chelsea or Tottenham Hotspur.

Both are regularly in the top 20 of Europe's rich list of clubs, the only teams from a minor domestic league outside of England, Italy, Spain, France and Germany. It is a remarkable statistic given the relatively miniscule amounts they receive from domestic football television rights.

Per head of population, more of Scotland's inhabitants pay to watch domestic football on television than anywhere else in Europe, but the disparity in broadcasting revenues compared to England is vast, representing just four per cent of the Premier League deal.

"Small Premier League teams like Wigan Athletic and Fulham, with less than 20,000 fans, can easily outspend Celtic and Rangers because of television money," Darren Jackson, the former Celtic striker, said, "and the gap is getting bigger."

Moving the Old Firm to play in England's top flight has long been mooted.

"Both Celtic and Rangers want to get out of Scotland," said Stephen Penman, a former sports editor of Scotland's Sunday Herald. "They'd love to be in the Premiership or a European League, but I can't see it happening. The Premier League board would have to vote for it, which would be like turkeys voting for Christmas."

"Progress for the Old Firm isn't winning the league," said one football agent who works extensively in Scotland. "And if they stay in Scotland, the only way they can be seen to progress is by achieving Champions League success." Unattractive to overseas investors who have been drawn to English football, both clubs are losing their best prospects to England and struggling to attract the quality of players needed to succeed in Europe. There has long been concern that the gap between the Old Firm and the rest of Scotland is ever widening. Now the same is happening between the Old Firm and their European peers.

Rangers' achievement in still being in contention to qualify from a group containing United and Valencia five games into the group must be applauded.

The Ibrox atmosphere will make it an intimidating place for the United players, but Sir Alex Ferguson is on hand to warn them what to expect. He used to play for Rangers after all.

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