New striker has a Rapid change of fortune on his way to Ibrox
but Croat shrugs off euro eligibility blow
nIKICA Jelavic stepped onto a flight from Vienna to London on Thursday evening dreaming of a Champions League debut for rangers at old Trafford next month. As he made his way to baggage reclaim a couple of hours later, a series of text messages informed him that events at Villa Park had ensured he will have to wait until next year at least before fulfilling his ambition to play in the world’s greatest club competition.
rapid Vienna’s dramatic europa League play-off victory against Aston Villa means Jelavic is ineligible to appear for rangers in the group stage of the Champions League this season as he played for the Austrian side in their earlier qualifying round matches.
The Croatian international, poised to make his debut for the Scottish champions against St Johnstone at Ibrox today, will now only be able to play for his new club in europe this season if they make it to the last 16 of the Champions League.
It is a source of huge frustration for both Jelavic and rangers manager Walter Smith, whose dogged pursuit of the £4 million signing was maintained with the view the player could significantly enhance his side in europe.
despite his obvious disappointment at Thursday’s turn of events, however, Jelavic insists he has no doubts he was right to dig in his heels and help force through his sale from rapid.
“I was on the plane to London on Thursday night so I couldn’t watch the rapid game,” said the 25-year-old. “When I saw the Champions League draw earlier, I was so motivated to play, especially with Manchester United in the group. Throughout the flight, I was wondering what was happening with rapid.
“When I landed in London, I turned on my phone and there were loads of messages. It said ‘1-0 for Villa’, then ‘21’ for Villa and I was thinking ‘Yes, it’s okay’. Then the last one said ‘3-2 rapid’. It’s obviously really disappointing but that’s what happens in football.
“To be honest, it doesn’t really change anything for me as far as coming to rangers is concerned. I joined rangers because they are a big club. They are a bigger club than rapid. My ambitions are still the same, to win trophies with rangers and hopefully play in the Champions League in the future. I want to play well and score lots of goals. There is plenty of time to do that.
“The last month has been hard for me, very stressful. I’d finish training, turn on my phone and have ten or 15 missed calls, messages asking what was happening with the transfer. That’s not football. now everything is sorted and I’ve got a good feeling.”
Jelavic has declared himself ready for immediate action with rangers despite only having his first training session with his new team-mates yesterday following the successful completion of his work permit application this week. Smith confirmed he is likely to be involved at some stage this afternoon but could not hide his own disappointment at the player being ruled out of his Champions League plans.
“I couldn’t find the rapid game on the TV, I ended up watching Liverpool instead,” said Smith. “Then Ally McCoist phoned me to tell me rapid had won. We knew it was a chance we were taking when we signed nikica, but there is no doubt it is a blow to us. It leaves us a bit short and whether we can now bring anyone else in before the window closes on Tuesday, I’m not sure.
“If there is going to be a benefit, it will be in having nikica fresh for the domestic games. but we weren’t looking for that, we would have preferred to have him for the Champions League.”
Jelavic’s ineligibility places greater emphasis on rangers’ hopes of retaining Kenny Miller’s services. The Scotland striker has one year left on his current contract and is considering the club’s second offer of a new deal, having rejected the first. Miller has been linked with english Premier League clubs newcastle and blackburn amid speculation rangers would be under pressure from their bankers to cash in on him if he does not commit to an extended contract.
“We have made him a new offer and haven’t had an answer yet,” confirmed Smith. “everybody at the club wants him to sign but it is entirely down to how Kenny sees it himself.”
rangers defender Andy Webster, meanwhile, has suffered a further injury setback with the hamstring injury which has sidelined him this season now diagnosed as a sciatic problem. Smith was unable to put a timescale on Webster’s return and the player appears certain to withdraw from the Scotland squad for next week’s euro 2012 qualifiers against Lithuania and Liechtenstein.
Nikica Jelavic trained at Ibrox for the first time yesterday and could feature against St Johnstone this afternoon