RANGERS legend Bobby Russell is praying for Celtic to make it into the next round of the Europa League tonight, because he believes it could open the door to the Ibrox side pipping their rivals to the league title.

Celtic go into the second leg of their round of 32 clash with Zenit in St Petersburg with a 1-0 lead from the first leg in Glasgow last Thursday.

But after that energy-sapping encounter, a much-changed Celtic side limped to a goalless draw against St Johnstone on Sunday, allowing Rangers to narrow the gap at the top of the table to nine points.

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While that is still a formidable gap to bridge, Russell believes that the longer Celtic’s main focus is on European competition, the more chance his old side will have of taking the title race to the wire.

And he knows from his own painful experience in his playing days, just how much fighting it out on four fronts can take out of players over the course of a season.

“The longer Celtic stay in Europe, the better it is for Rangers,” Russell said. “They are only human, and their available squad isn’t that big now with the injuries they have.

“When you are playing these kinds of games like the one against Zenit, players are going to be physically and mentally tired. You have to peak for these games, and I know how difficult it can be.

“It happened to us in 78/79. We were en-route to back-to-back trebles and had a great run in Europe, but it all caught up with us and we ended up getting injuries to key players. It all led to us missing out on the treble by one game, so it could be the same with Celtic. If they do continue in Europe, it could catch up with them.”

Given the points that Celtic have dropped over the course of this campaign compared to last, Rangers may well be kicking themselves that they too have slipped up at times when it has been least expected.

But from what Russell has seen of Rangers recently, he has plenty of reason to believe that they are in a good place to finish the season strongly and give reeling in Celtic their best shot.

“When you look at Rangers and the games they have lost, it’s easy to say in hindsight of course, but they could be in an even better position,” he said.

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“They have lost games at home you wouldn’t expect them to, but it’s ifs, buts and maybes.

“Celtic have maybe went down a level and aren’t playing the way they were, so that has played a part in closing the gap, but there is no doubt that Rangers have also improved of late.

“I was at the Aberdeen game and Rangers were by far the best team on the night. Aberdeen are supposedly the second-best team in Scotland, but on that showing, definitely not.

“There are tough games coming up. Celtic have got Aberdeen away when they aren’t really playing to the same standard they were last year. Rangers are at home to Hearts, and while you would expect it to be a tough game, you would expect Rangers to beat Hearts at home.

“If Aberdeen get something from Celtic, then that nine-point gap could be down to six or seven, and then you just don’t know. If it does, it gives everybody a wee bit of hope that the Championship race isn’t over by the end of March or even earlier.

“Celtic are more than capable of going to Aberdeen and getting a result, so it’s very hard to predict. But I’m hoping that Celtic get beat, Rangers win, and all of a sudden there’s a six-point gap which is only two games.”

If the ideal scenario from Russell’s point of view does play out, Rangers will be going into the match against Celtic at Ibrox on March 11th within touching distance of their rivals, making the clash a tantalising prospect.

“Rangers have got Celtic at home, so there would be an opportunity, but if results don’t go our way we could end up further away, so you just don’t know,” he said.

“It’s unpredictable, but I would rather it was closer because it makes it more exciting for everybody in the run-in.

“Hopefully when Celtic do then come to Ibrox, that will be a tense affair. And it’s a game that should be close.”