It was 1986 when FC Steaua Bucureşti became the first and so far only Romanian side to win a major continental competition, shocking FC Barcelona in Seville in the European Champion Clubs' Cup final. A quarter of a century on, five Liga I sides will line up in the UEFA Europa League play-off round first legs on Thursday hoping to embark on a run that culminates in a triumph on home turf next May.
Steaua are among them, eager to put behind them a turbulent summer that brought new faces – Brazilian striker Leandro Tatu and the Costea brothers, Florin and Mihai, led an overhaul of their playing squad – but the loss of their old stadium. While waiting for the New National Stadium – venue for the 2011 UEFA Europa League final – to be ready, they will line up against PFC CSKA Sofia in Cluj-Napoca, a place that at well over 400km away is actually closer to the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, than it is to Bucharest.
CS Gaz Metan Mediaș, FC Dinamo București and FC Vaslui are also in the mix but it is FC Rapid Bucureşti, emboldened by high-profile signings, who could lead the charge. The capture of Ciprian Deac on loan from FC Schalke 04 has supplemented the arrivals of Iulian Apostol, Dan Alexa and Romeo Surdu as Rapid adapt to life without PAOK FC-bound captain Costin Lazăr.
The early signs are positive. Rapid have won two out of three this season and as he prepared for the trip to Poland to take on WKS Śląsk Wroclaw, coach Răzvan Lucescu spoke of the "unique feeling" that playing at the New National Stadium would bring. They have to get their first, of course.
To complicate matters they, like Steaua, Gaz Metan (Cluj-Napoca) and Vaslui (Piatra Neamț) – the latter two because their home stadiums do not meet UEFA's requirements – will be in unusual surrounds for their home leg, making the 1,100km round trip to Timisoara. Indeed, the only side with a home they can call their own is Dinamo București, who came through a tough examination by NK Varaždin to book a similarly daunting-looking assignment against FC Vorskla Poltava, starting in Ukraine this week.
New coach Liviu Ciobotariu is taking nothing for granted. "Let's not underestimate Vorskla Poltava," said the former Romania defender. "They will be no walkover. On the contrary, they have very strong and aggressive players. We will have to be very cautious." Dinamo have cause for optimism, however. Despite losing several squad members during the summer their experienced players have stepped up: Marius Niculae, Ionel Dănciulescu and Cătălin Munteanu have all been among the goals in a strong start to the campaign.
Dinamo are top of the embryonic table with three wins from three, including a 5-0 victory against a Gaz Metan team that confounded expectations by knocking out 1. FSV Mainz 05 on penalties in the UEFA Europa League third qualifying round. They will be underdogs again for their play-off tie with FK Austria Wien, so too Vaslui as they seek to put UEFA Champions League third qualifying round defeat by FC Twente behind them against AC Sparta Praha. Yet sometimes underdogs do have their day – as Steaua demonstrated all those years ago.
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