Rangers' quest for a first European trophy in 36 years ended in heartbreak as Zenit St. Petersburg claimed Russia's second UEFA Cup in the space of four years with a 2-0 win in Wednesday's final.
The match was effectively settled 18 minutes from time, when midfielder Igor Denisov combined smoothly with playmaker Andrei Arshavin before slotting home the recently crowned Russian champions Zenit’s opening goal.
Konstantin Zyrianov added a second in stoppage time to make sure Zenit — giving former Rangers coach Dick Advocaat a famous win — emulated the achievement of 2005 winners CSKA Moscow and condemned the tens of thousands of Rangers supporters who had descended on Manchester to a miserable journey back to Scotland.
Rangers manager Walter Smith claimed that the match had been closer than it appeared to the neutral eye.
Smith’s pre-match hint at a more adventurous approach from a side that scored just five goals in eight games on their way to the final was belied by the team-sheets, the now familiar five-man midfield aligned behind lone striker Jean-Claude Darcheville.
Zenit, forced to make do without the competition’s joint top scorer, the suspended Pavel Pogrebnyak, drafted experienced Turkey striker Fatih Tekke in to spearhead an attack just ahead of Arshavin.
The threat posed by the Russia playmaker was underlined as early as the fourth minute, when Zyrianov sent him darting into the Rangers box.
Neil Alexander looked to have the danger covered but would still have been relieved to see Arshavin’s shot from a tight angle slide into the side netting.
Rangers responded in similar fashion, Darcheville bursting through the inside left channel to deliver a low cross that left-back Radek Sirl nicked off the boot of Barry Ferguson as the Rangers captain slid in to meet it on the edge of the six-yard box.
A Sirl free-kick from the best part of 40 yards gave Alexander his first save to make and the hero of the semi-final shootout win over Fiorentina made light of a slight deflection and treacherous bounce.
Alexander also had to be alert to keep out a fiercely struck half-volley from the Zenit right-back, Alexander Anyukov, although the fact that it took the Russians half an hour to turn overwhelming domination in terms of possession into their first shot on target was arguably an encouraging sign for opponents that have grown accomplished at grinding their adversaries into submission.
In a City of Manchester stadium bedecked by the banners of Rangers supporters clubs from Melbourne to the outer Hebrides, the atmosphere in the nominally neutral venue had been expected to resemble their own Ibrox fortress on Glasgow derby day.
Stretching to reach Roman Shirokov’s cross from the left, Kirk Broadfoot met the ball with an outstretched arm just inside the area but Zenit’s appeals for a spot-kick were waved away.
Swedish referee Peter Frojdfeldt may have balanced out his mistake 10 minutes after the restart when Rangers put together an attack of real menace, Steven Davis driving forward on the right before slipping Darcheville in behind the Zenit back four.
Goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev blocked but could not hold the striker’s low shot and, in the ensuing scramble, Rangers’ players were convinced Denisov had handled.
But the Scots were also leaving themselves more exposed at the back and they enjoyed a significant let-off in the 65th-minute when Sasa Papac headed Arshavin’s shot wide on the left after the Russia star had skipped round Alexander.