CFR 1907 Cluj fell agonisingly short of becoming the first Romanian team to qualify for the UEFA Champions League last 16, but they can nevertheless go into the UEFA Europa League with heads held high.
Wednesday's 1-0 victory at Manchester United FC was so very nearly the perfect finale, yet CFR lost out on their head-to-head record with Galatasaray AŞ after the Turkish club came from behind to win 2-1 at SC Braga. It was a cruel outcome for Paulo Sérgio's men, who established a group-stage record of ten points for a Romanian side. Only holders Chelsea FC could match that tally this term among the teams who missed out on qualification.
CFR's +2 goal difference is further testimony to their strong performance in Group H. The 2-0 triumph over Braga in Portugal on matchday one – gained under then coach Ioan Andone – set the perfect tone and CFR went on to pick up points against all their rivals.
They ultimately came up short, though Rafael Bastos, scorer of both goals in Braga, remains positive they can go on to enjoy a successful UEFA Europa League campaign. "In 2011, Braga came third in their Champions League group, qualified for the Europa League and reached the final," said the attack-minded Brazilian. "Maybe we will do the same – we can do it. The whole of Romania is happy."
Such confidence has, from the off, been inherent in this CFR squad – play-off conquerors of FC Basel 1893. They have shown total commitment to both coaches, helping Andone secure four points before then claiming successive victories under Sérgio. The Portuguese trainer – appointed on 30 October – and his predecessor deployed similar tactics: an organised defence alloyed with a quick counterattacking style to suit the likes of Bastos, Modou Sougou, Rui Pedro and Pantelis Kapetanos. CFR had far less of the ball than their opponents in every group stage game, yet showed admirable possession whenever they won it back.
Especially impressive was their fearless approach throughout. When they did lose out, it was down to individual mistakes rather than being daunted by the occasion – even at Old Trafford, where they became the first Liga 1 outfit to earn a point, home or away, against the Red Devils.
There has also been continuity in selection, with Mário Felgueiras, Ivo Pinto, Cadú and Camora playing every minute of their campaign. Luís Alberto, Bastos, Sougou and Gabriel Mureșan all appeared frequently too, with Kapetanos another regular until Sérgio took a punt by leaving him on the bench and deploying Bastos as an advanced striker for matchdays five and six. It proved a wise move as two straight victories followed. If that was not enough, CFR deserve immense credit nonetheless and will feature in UEFA competition post-Christmas for the first time.
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