Rangers 0 Panathinaikos 0
Rangers’ hopes of progressing to the last 16 of the UEFA cup were dented tonight after being held to a goalless draw by Panathinaikos at Ibrox.
Even the late introduction of Daniel Cousin failed to break down the stubborn resistance of the Greek defence.
Rangers now face a daunting trip to Athens for the second leg next week knowing they have to score to keep their European hopes alive.
The last time Panathinaikos visited Ibrox back in December 2003, Rangers were the victims of a 3-1 Champions League defeat which prevented Alex McLeish’s men from parachuting into the UEFA Cup. And it proved to be another frustrating night in Glasgow for Rangers at the hands of the Greeks.
Walter Smith persisted with the 4-5-1 formation which he had favoured in Champions League matches against Stuttgart, Barcelona and Lyon but, this time, Lee McCulloch was given the nod in the lone striker role.
Tonight saw Jean-Claude Darcheville begin the first of a three-match European ban, while fellow striker Cousin was named on the bench as FIFA continue to drag their heels on whether to sanction his £3million move to Fulham or not.
On-loan Fulham midfielder Steve Davis made his debut but the biggest cheer when the teams were read out was reserved for fans’ favourite Nacho Novo, who earned his first start since the win over Inverness in early November.
The Spaniard was clearly up for the challenge, pouncing on McCulloch’s header within a few minutes of kick-off only to send a left-footed drive straight at goalkeeper Mario Galinovic, who gratefully smothered.
The Greeks had declared beforehand that a goalless draw was not on the agenda as far as they were concerned and they set about trying to snatch an early goal when Mikael Nilsson fed Marcelo Mattos and his long-range effort dipped just over the crossbar. Junior Simao then had a go from 25 yards but the outcome was the same.
At the other end, only the heroics of the Pana goalkeeper denied Davis a debut goal.
Charlie Adam’s charge into the box from the left flank was challenged by Giannis Goumas but his clearance broke to Davis 30 yards out, who forced Galinovic to dive smartly to his left to block the powerful effort.
A blunder from Goumas then almost gifted Rangers the opener when he tried to knock Barry Ferguson’s header back to the goalkeeper. The pass was poor and he also failed to hold off Novo, who could have claimed his seventh goal of the season had it not been for Galinovic’s frantic clearance.
Novo then collected a long ball from Brahim Hemdani and powered his way into the box only to fire off the legs of the goalkeeper instead of leaving the net bulging, as Rangers were forced to settle for a stalemate heading into the second half.
Rangers were out of the traps quickly after the restart, with Kirk Broadfoot releasing Novo down the right flank and he whipped a cross to McCulloch at the back post only for the move to be intercepted by a white jersey.
McCulloch then squandered a great chance to break the deadlock from Adam’s resultant corner, connecting powerfully with the inswinger and sending the header fizzing past the upright.
The home fans screamed for a penalty when Novo went to ground after a push from Loukas Vyntra but there appeared to be little in the incident and the pleas were ignored by the Italian referee.
The Ibrox crowd were growing restless and, with just over 20 minutes to go, Cousin was thrown into the action in place of Adam, making his first appearance since agreeing his move to Fulham three weeks ago.
Galinovic was in fine form again to keep the scoreline level, first denying Ferguson’s point-blank effort before clawing Novo’s rebound shot from the gaping goal.
Not to be outdone, Allan McGregor then pulled off a great save of his own.
He had pushed a Nilsson cross straight to Dame Ndoye but the Rangers goalkeeper redeemed himself by punching his shot to safety as the tie ended goalless.