The omens seem to be positive for FC Steaua Bucuresti as they bid to reach the UEFA Champions League group stage with a win against R. Standard de Liège.
While there will be no substitute for a strong display as they take on the Belgian side at the Lia Manoliu stadium, following a 2-2 first-leg draw, Steaua supporters may feel a first UEFA Champions League group-stage appearance since 1996/97 is looming thanks to some serendipitous signs. For starters, the year ends in six. Steaua's golden generation famously won the European Champion Clubs' Cup in 1986, while under coach Dumitru Dumitriu, the Romanian capital team reached the UEFA Champions League proper for a third successive season in 1996.
A decade on, Dumitriu is desperate for Steaua to attain the promised land again. "Please believe me, I don't want to be the last coach to lead Steaua in the group stage," he said. "I don't want to be the only one. I want to shed this burden and I am sure Steaua can qualify." The year 2006 has already been good to Steaua: they reclaimed their Romanian title and got to the UEFA Cup semi-finals, yet there are indications it could be even more successful. Certainly if you look hard enough.
The referees' observer in the second leg against Standard will be Michel Vautrot, who was in the middle for Steaua's 2-0 win against FC Barcelona in the 1986 European Cup final in Seville. Moreover, meetings with Belgian opponents were well-starred in both 1986 and 1996. In the former campaign, Steaua were 3-1 semi-final victors over RSC Anderlecht. In the latter, they qualified for the group stage with a 5-2 aggregate success against Club Brugge KV; supporters with long memories will recall that, as two weeks ago, the first leg finished 2-2.
Steaua will also have had home advantage in the second instalment of all three ties, although with their pitch not quite ready, tonight's game will be staged at the Lia Manoliu home of the national team. Here Steaua's luck may have failed them. Their results in continental competition have been mixed since moving to their temporary residence in February 2006, so Standard coach Johan Boskamp saw cause for optimism ahead of the Bucharest showdown, saying: "Steaua have lost one very important advantage."
Nor is Steaua's squad in optimum shape. Defender Sorin Ghionea is suspended, captain Mirel Radoi and forward Victoras Iacob are on the long-term injured list, while worries persist over the fitness of Dorin Goian and Sorin Paraschiv. However, with Steaua owner Gigi Becali reportedly offering bonuses of up to €100,000 for qualification, Steaua will not lack motivation. Romania captain and AS Roma star Cristian Chivu has also given Steaua reason to believe: "It's time for a Romanian team to break the deadlock and qualify for the group stage. Steaua are capable of doing that."
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