Alberto Gilardino sealed ACF Fiorentina's place in the UEFA Cup after nodding in the only goal of a narrow 1-0 victory at FC Steaua Bucureşti on Matchday 6 of the UEFA Champions League.
With Olympique Lyonnais and FC Bayern München having already sewn up the qualifying places from Group F, Fiorentina had needed a draw in Bucharest to go through to the UEFA Cup's Round of 32. The Italy striker's 66th-minute header rubber-stamped their ticket and earned the Viola their first win of the campaign, while ending the European season of a Steaua team stuck on one point in the group.
Given the stakes, it was little surprise that both sides made hesitant starts, leaving a restive home crowd to provide the evening's early colour. On the pitch, the first action of note came after a quarter of an hour, when home playmaker Dayro Moreno whistled in a low free-kick which Sébastien Frey failed to hold but whose rebound eluded the Steaua players. Bănel Nicoliţă also caused trouble for the Italian club's defence with a swirling free-kick, while a subdued Fiorentina replied with a set-piece of their own which Romania striker Adrian Mutu crashed into the Steaua wall.
Mutu, who had just sent a header over the bar from Mario Alberto Santana's corner, finally got an effort on target with a 30th-minute free-kick which goalkeeper Robinson Zapata cleared with both fists. Fiorentina were gradually getting into their stride and fulfilling coach Cesare Prandelli's wish that they played to win. Mutu, booed whenever he touched the ball because of his previous spell with Steaua's city rivals FC Dinamo 1948 Bucureşti, was put through in the closing stages of the half for an angled shot that flew comfortably wide of the post. The attempt summed up an uneven 45 minutes in which neither team had created a clear-cut chance.
Fiorentina looked the sharper of the sides after the restart though there were still struggling to find the finishing touch, midfielder Riccardo Montolivo pouncing on a loose ball at the edge of the area but raking his shot well wide of the target. Mutu glanced a header into Zapata's waiting arms as the momentum grew behind the Serie A outfit who, if nothing else, were doing a good job of keeping the ball in the Steaua half and away from danger.
The pressure finally told in the 66th minute when Fiorentina defender Juan Manuel Vargas curled over a corner from the left and Gilardino rose to meet it with a textbook header that sailed past Zapata and into the net off the base of the right-hand post. It was no more than the Viola deserved and forced Steaua to come out of their shell. Things, however, went from bad to worse for the hosts when defender Paweł Golański was sent off in the 72nd minute for a second bookable offence, a challenge on Vargas. The match duly fizzled out, with the home fans beginning to leave well before the final whistle. For Fiorentina, though, the job was done.