Two Romanian sides with differing football philosophies seek to bring back the glory days of 2005/06 as the UEFA Europa League round of 32 gets under way.
'UEFantastic' was the buzzword in the Romanian media in 2005/06. CFR 1907 Cluj reached the UEFA Intertoto Cup final before FC Steaua Bucureşti and FC Rapid Bucureşti – teams dominated by local players – enjoyed long UEFA Cup runs. Steaua eventually beat Rapid in the quarter-finals en route to a dramatic semi-final loss to Middlesbrough FC. Steaua claimed the consolation of a 23rd Romanian title yet have not won one since.
Meantime, CFR have become the pre-eminent force in Romania's First Division, collecting three championships and three Romanian Cups. It marks a dramatic change of fortunes given CFR only returned to the top flight in 2004 after a 28-year absence, but the Railwaymen's progress has been partly down to their approach. While Steaua have stayed true to their commitment to local talent, CFR have looked abroad – primarily to Portugal – in a bid to dominate.
The two sides' UEFA Europa League squad lists make interesting reading. Led by Portuguese coach Paulo Sérgio, CFR have lost four foreign players over the winter break (Matías Aguirregaray, Luís Alberto, Modou Sougou and Rafael Bastos) yet still have seven Portuguese imports, two French, a Croat, a Greek and an Italian along with their seven Romanians. Steaua boast a Romanian coach – Laurențiu Reghecampf – and a relatively modest five-man foreign contingent.
However, this term it is Steaua who lead the title race – ten points clear of second-placed FC Astra Ploieşti and a further five above CFR in fifth – and while they have had some discouraging friendly results this winter, they should be up for their round of 32 encounter with AFC Ajax.
"After our last friendly defeat, I watched all the goals we scored in the autumn and our best moments, because so many bad things have happened in recent weeks that we have to get our positivity back," said Reghecampf. "The players are well prepared, they will know what to do in the competitive games."
If Steaua have been courting media attention at their training camp in Antalya, Turkey, CFR have been working in seclusion in Marbella, Spain, playing their latest friendly – against fellow UEFA Europa League campaigners FC Rubin Kazan – behind closed doors. Results have been decent, but with FC Internazionale Milano awaiting them in the last 32, they have a tough task ahead. "Our target this winter has been to get better from match to match, which we have done," said left-back László Sepsi. "I think we are ready for the Inter tie, one of the toughest possible opponents."
Steaua and CFR can already look back on successful campaigns: Steaua topped their UEFA Europa League group, while CFR's ten-point haul in the UEFA Champions League group stage represented a Romanian record – and they were the first Romanian club to win at Old Trafford. They both face huge obstacles if they are to make the round of 16, yet should they achieve it, 'UEFantastic' could again be the word on everyone's lips.
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