"Bring on Chelsea," said match winner Iasmin Latovlevici after FC Steaua Bucureşti won the first UEFA Europa League knockout phase penalty shoot-out to cue up a game against the European champions.
At the stadium that staged the 2012 UEFA Europa League final, Steaua eliminated 2013 showpiece hosts AFC Ajax in the round of 32, Latovlevici scoring the first goal as the Romanian side cancelled out a 2-0 first-leg deficit before dusting off his goggles celebration again by converting the clinching spot kick in a 4-2 shoot-out success.
"Congratulations to everybody who bought tickets to come to this match," said the 26-year-old left-back. "They will never forget this game. We always believed and had faith that we would qualify. Bring on Chelsea! We can beat them – we deserve to beat them."
Striker Raul Rusescu, who slotted in Steaua's first penalty, felt similarly confident. "We are happy that we will bring another European force to Bucharest," the 24-year-old beamed. "I am confident we can beat them as well."
Steaua's second-leg triumph was the first Romanian victory in the knockout stage of a UEFA club competition since their own 1-0 home win against Middlesbrough FC in the 2005/06 UEFA Cup semi-finals. They missed out on the final with a last-gasp defeat in the return fixture, but nonetheless claimed Steaua's most recent Romanian league title that season.
The manner of their victory mirrored a success against Valencia CF at the same point of the 2004/05 UEFA Cup, where on home soil Steaua overturned a 2-0 away loss to advance after watching their opponents miss two penalties in the resulting shoot-out.
Progress for Steaua – eliminated by another Dutch side FC Twente in this round last term – augurs well for the national team's upcoming FIFA World Cup qualifier against the Netherlands at the Amsterdam ArenA. However, above all it is another coup for Romania's most successful club; Steaua have won more titles (23) and Romanian Cups (20) than any rival, just played in a European group stage for a national-record ninth successive campaign, and remain the only Romanian outfit to have lifted a European trophy: the 1985/86 European Champion Clubs' Cup and the subsequent UEFA Super Cup.
After adding this latest feather to Steaua's cap, coach Laurențiu Reghecampf said: "It is an unbelievable achievement, but I don't know if it is a miracle. I said after the first leg that we still have a chance, because we played well but were unlucky. Now we will celebrate of course, but not too much. We need to put the brakes on a bit because I need to remind the players we have a tough league game at the weekend and we want to win the title. That is our main objective. For the moment, we cannot think about Chelsea."
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