Middlesbrough FC manager Steve McClaren said that "lightning had struck twice" after watching his side battle back from three goals down for the second UEFA Cup tie in succession and book a place in the final in Eindhoven on 10 May.
The English side had mounted a stirring fightback against FC Basel 1893 in the quarter-finals, scoring four times at the Riverside stadium to overturn a three-goal deficit and progress to the last four 4-3 on aggregate. With his side trailing 1-0 after the first leg to a Steaua side who had conceded only four goals in their previous 13 UEFA Cup matches this season, McClaren had said before the match that the first goal would prove vital to his side's chances and that he did not expect the Romanian club to crumble as their Swiss counterparts had done.
In the event, early strikes from Nicolae Dica and Dorin Goian put the Romanian side in command, only for Massimo Maccarone's goal 12 minutes before the interval to spark a remarkable revival. "I can't praise the players enough," said McClaren. "We went out of the FA Cup to West Ham [United FC] on Sunday and then fell 2-0 down tonight, but they showed tremendous character and resilience to fight back. It's a historic night for this football club, absolutely unbelievable; it just shows you that lightning can strike twice in the same place. I actually felt we started the match quite well, but then Steaua had a couple of early attacks and that seemed to frighten us; we needed to hold them in check and we didn't do that."
Nevertheless, Maccarone's effort was added to by Mark Viduka just past the hour, and McClaren pinpointed that moment as the pivotal incident, saying: "The first goal was obviously important as it got us back into the game, but the equaliser really knocked them back. Fear set in, they began to panic and we took advantage. It's difficult when a lead starts disappearing, you don't really know what to do." Chris Riggott put the home side ahead on the night 17 minutes from time and then, with barely 60 seconds of normal time remaining, Maccarone - who also scored the last-minute winner against Basel - dived to head his side into a final meeting with Sevilla FC. "It defies all logic, but the belief in that dressing room is incredible and that saw us through," McClaren added.
The Middlesbrough manager is well-placed to assess the magnitude of his side's comeback; in addition to the Basel encounter, McClaren was Sir Alex Ferguson's assistant in 1999 when two added-time goals at the Camp Nou won the UEFA Champions League final for Manchester United FC. "This is definitely on a par with 1999; you don't get many miracles in football and we've had two in a month," he said. "Getting to the UEFA Cup final is very, very hard and in our second season in the competition it's a phenomenal achievement for a small town in Europe. But as good as getting to the final is, now we want to win it - and if we give Sevilla a three-goal start in the first ten minutes, we should be ok!"
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