Only an optimistic few gave FC Astra Giurgiu a chance in their UEFA Europa League play-off tie against Olympique Lyonnais, and yet the Romanian side will host Thursday's second leg in the driving seat after their shock 2-1 victory in France.
The team from the left bank of the river Danube, bordering Bulgaria, were even considered underdogs in their own country, despite ambitious owner Ioan Niculae having done much to help the club progress – to the point where Astra could well challenge domestic champions FC Steaua Bucureşti this term.
Daniel Isăilă's charges have made a habit of belying Astra's outsiders' tag, and that was the case again as they came from behind to triumph at Lyon, the first ever win by a Romanian club on French soil in European competition, and at the home of a UEFA Champions League regular. Indeed, perhaps their Stade de Gerland success was not so surprising after all.
Astra have enjoyed a dream 2014 so far, with their 42-year-old coach guiding them to an unprecedented runners-up finish in Romania's top flight as well as Romanian Cup and Romanian Super Cup glory, both times achieved via a penalty shoot-out against heavyweights Steaua.
Not bad for a club founded in 1934 and whose First Division debut came as late as 1998, before relegation in 2003 and a subsequent second promotion six years later. Their upward momentum only really became evident with a fourth-place finish in 2012/13, which resulted in a maiden foray in UEFA competition, beginning in last season's UEFA Europa League first qualifying round and ending in the play-offs, against Maccabi Haifa FC.
This term, though, the group stage is well within reach after their 6-2 aggregate defeat of FC Slovan Liberec in the third qualifying round prefaced Thursday's heroics in France. "
We badly wounded [Lyon's] ego and we are well aware that we will have to be even more focused in the second leg," said goalkeeper Silviu Lung, with Kehinde Fatai's 72nd-minute strike and an 81st-minute penalty from captain Constantin Budescu having overturned Steed Malbranque's first-half opener for OL.
Forward Budescu added: "We are not through by any means and we have to keep our feet on the ground. It was a nice evening in Lyon, but now we need to have a fabulous night after the second leg."
According to coach Isăilă, meanwhile, preparation will be key when the tie concludes in Giurgiu, 60km south of Bucharest: "We are really well prepared both physically and mentally. If you don't have self-confidence, it's impossible to achieve targets. Obviously the second leg will be very tough, because the mentality of the French players is to attack and to impose their game. But we have a psychological advantage and we will do our best."
Togetherness may prove to be another secret of Astra's success, should they come out on top. Budescu is the star No10, but the team's the most important players have been together at least three years: Takayuki Seto arrived in 2007, while William Amorim and Fatai signed in 2010 and were joined by Lung, Valerică Găman, Júnior Morais and Budescu the following year. It all augurs well, then, for a fabulous night on the Romanian Danube – for Astra, if not for OL.
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