The 2008 UEFA Cup Final is a day not well remembered in the memories of the average football fan, but for Rangers fans, it’s one of the most heartbreaking days of their lives.
A journey to the final that began in June, 10 months before the fateful game against Zenit, Rangers were not focused on winning the UEFA Cup but instead trying to get into another competition, the Champions League.
Starting their European dream in the second qualifying round in July 2007, Walter Smith’s side breezed past FK Zeta into the next round of Champions League qualifying where again the Scottish side waltzed through with a 1-0 aggregate win against Red Star Belgrade – putting the Gers’ into the group stages.
Placed with Barcelona, Lyon and Stuttgart, it wasn’t going to be an easy task to make it out, but Rangers got off to a flyer beating Stuttgart 2-1, followed by a 3-0 win away in France, and then a respectable 0-0 at home against a Barca side that started the game with a front three of Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi.
But the fairytale start wasn’t to last as three successive defeats in the reverse fixtures denied Smith’s side from progressing into the last 16 of the Champions League, however finishing third meant Rangers remained in Europe and would compete in the UEFA Cup, what is the Europa League to us now.
A moment in time: Rangers’ 2008 European journey
At first, fans were down about missing out on carrying on their story in the Champions League. After all, there was some genuine hope about a cup upset following the first three games of the group stage.
But after knocking out Panathinaikos in the Round of 32 and Werder Breman in the next round, the hope was back that something could be up here. Another win, this time against Sporting Lisbon, setting Rangers up for their first European semi-final in over 30 years.
The dream of making only their fourth ever European Cup final was starting to seem like a real possibility, and after a nervy penalty shoot-out Fiorentina in the semi-final, Rangers had booked their ticket into the final in Manchester.
With the final taking place so close to home, it’s understandable that Rangers fans invaded the city, and invade the city they did. Up to 200,000 fans flocked to the city despite only 13,000 tickets being allocated to Rangers fans.
Going into the final itself, Rangers were arguably seen as the favourites to claim the UEFA Cup. Zenit was heading into the game without the top scorer of the competition, Pavel Pogrebnyak, due to suspension, however, Smith’s side were also missing a key man as starting keeper Allan McGregor was out due to injury.
Right from kick-off, it was clear that Rangers were being outplayed. The Russian side dominated most of the first half with Andrei Arshavin and Konstantin Zyryanov causing problems for the Scottish defence, and by the end of the half, the Premiership side had yet to manage a single shot on target.
The second-half got underway and it became quickly apparent it was a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ Zenit were going to score, and then in the 72nd minute it came through Igor Denisov, and in stoppage time Zyryanov rounded off the final with a second goal of the game.
A heart-breaking result for Rangers, who 10 months before the doomed final in Manchester never thought getting to a European cup final was a realistic possibility for that season.
It remains the last time a Scottish side has made it to a European cup final, and will likely remain as such for years to come. It was just a moment in time, but for Rangers fans, it’s a memory that will last a lifetime.