It was FC Oţelul Galaţi who grabbed the headlines in Romania last season by winning their first title, but they were not the only unexpected overachievers of 2010/11 and now CS Gaz Metan Mediaş have found themselves thrust into the European limelight.
Hailing from the small Transylvanian town of Medias, Gaz Metan defied expectations last term to secure a first foray into continental competition. The new adventure looked destined to end in failure at the very outset when Cristian Pustai's side lost their second qualifying round opener against Finland's KuPS Kuopio. However, the one-goal deficit was overturned by a 2-0 home win that took the Romanian outfit through to the next round, where 1. FSV Mainz 05 awaited.
Last week's 1-1 draw with the Bundesliga side demonstrated Gaz Metan were warming to their UEFA Europa League task still further, considering the calibre of the opposition. However, after back-to-back league defeats in the new First Division campaign − the last a 5-0 loss to FC Dinamo Bucureşti − Pustai knows how hard it will be to reproduce a home win in Europe.
"We have to forget the match against Dinamo and be fresh and ready for the game," he said. "The second leg will be far more difficult than the first because last season Mainz were the third best away team in Germany."
It is not surprising that Pustai, a former maths teacher, should keep a keen eye on the statistics, yet the 46-year-old's record since taking over in 2007 certainly warrants analysis of its own. In his four seasons in charge, Gaz Metan have won promotion and then finished 15th, tenth and seventh.
For a club that was founded in 1945, spent 51 years yo-yoing between the second and third divisions and was relegated after their first year back in the top flight, these are heady times. Named after the natural methane gas fields of Medias, it is a success story founded on hard work and a strong team spirit.
Stars in the traditional sense are few and far between. Only forward Florin Bratu has been capped by Romania (14 times, two goals), while striker Alin Liţu and defenders Radu Zaharia and Paul Pârvulescu have a clutch of Under-21 appearances between them.
It will be interesting to see if last season's 15-goal top scorer, Eric de Oliveira Pereira, returns to the side for the biggest match in their history. The Brazilian has yet to feature so far this term, which perhaps explains Gaz Metan's disappointing start to the league season.
Conversely, the 25-year-old's absence has not affected UEFA Europa League results so far. "League matches are a whole different ball game compared to those in Europe," added Pustai, who will be hoping his side can stumble upon the right formula for success again on Thursday.
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