VfB Stuttgart reached the UEFA Champions League first knockout round for the first time in five years, overwhelming FC Unirea Urziceni with three goals in the first eleven minutes to claim second place in Group G at their opponents' expense.
The Romanian titleholders travelled to Germany holding a two-point lead over Stuttgart yet were powerless to deny Christian Gross a dream start to his new job. The 55-year-old replaced Markus Babbel on Sunday and watched in jubilation as his new charges began at breathtaking speed, goals from Ciprian Marica, Christian Träsch and Pavel Pogrebnyak effectively wrapping up a last-16 place despite António Semedo's reply early in the second period.
Khedira the key
The hosts could scarcely have imagined a better start, taking a three-goal lead before Unirea could draw breath. Sami Khedira, a surprise inclusion following a foot injury, swiftly proved worthy of Gross's gamble, delivering a perfect cross for Marica to nod past the stranded Giedrius Arlauskis with five minutes gone. Although Jens Lehmann was forced into a superb save from his own defender as Stefano Celozzi made a last-ditch challenge on Marius Ioan Bilasco, the early momentum was with Stuttgart, who doubled their advantage from the resulting corner.
Breaking swiftly, Timo Gebhart's long pass allowed Träsch to outstrip the Unirea defence and shoot low across Arlauskis and into the bottom corner of the net. Three minutes later the Stuttgart supporters were rubbing their eyes in disbelief as Khedira laid on his second of the night and the home team's third, Pogrebnyak picking up his ball in from the right and jinking past two defenders before finishing coolly through the goalkeeper's legs.
With the match all but decided already, the Bundesliga strugglers relaxed and continued to dictate proceedings without adding to their lead before the interval. Their composure suffered a jolt five minutes into the second period when Semedo made the most of Artur Boka's mistake to reduce the visitors' deficit, though Stuttgart quickly regained the initiative by creating a plethora of chances.
Gebhardt goes close
Substitute Sebastian Rudy was the first to threaten, linking up superbly with Marica only to drive straight at Arslauskis, before Marica himself was unfortunate not to find a team-mate after breaking down the left. With Unirea attempting to hurt their hosts on the counterattack, Stuttgart accepted the invitation to pour forward and came close to restoring their three-goal lead when Gebhart curled a delightful shot beyond Arlauskis, only to watch his effort clip the outside of the post.
The German side continued to look the more likely scorers as the match entered its final stages, with Unirea never seriously threatening to mount the remarkable fightback required after that sensational Stuttgart start. Dan Petrescu's side therefore go into the draw for the UEFA Europa League round of 32 on 18 December; Gross, meanwhile, will be hoping a second successive UEFA Champions League win can provide the impetus to revive Stuttgart's stuttering domestic fortunes.