A tough time for Romanian clubs in Europe was ended in style by FC Steaua Bucureşti whose 3-1 win against AEK Larnaca FC on Wednesday night left both coach and players celebrating a notable achievement: qualification for the last 32.
Apart from FC Unirea Urziceni, who moved into the UEFA Europa League round of 32 after coming third in their 2009/10 UEFA Champions League group, no Romanian side had made the knockout stage of a continental competition since 2006/07. Then, Steaua reached the UEFA Cup round of 32 (FC Dinamo Bucureşti also proceeded to the the knockouts) where they were eliminated by Sevilla FC; the year before they had gone all the way to the semi-finals, falling to a stunning Middlesbrough FC comeback. Subsequently, success had been thin on the ground; but this term may just be different.
Two goals from Stefan Nikolić in Bucharest helped Ilie Stan's team to victory over Cyprus's AEK Larnaca to confirm Steaua's progress as Group J runners-up and maintain their dream of playing a home UEFA Europa League final in May. Without a domestic title since 2006 and sixth in the Romanian First Division, Steaua have traditionally been their country's top performers on the continent, lifting the European Champion Clubs' Cup in 1986 and contesting the final again in 1989.
"It's a historic achievement," said coach Stan. "We will play in the knockout phase of a European tournament for the ninth time, which is a Romanian record.
I am so happy and grateful to my family, my friends, everyone who believed in me and in us, and of course to the fantastic 50,000 crowd. I have to say, though, that currently the team are playing at only 50% of their potential. After the winter break Steaua will be a real force and we can achieve a lot."
The hero of Wednesday night, Nikolić, struck his first European goals and also won the 55th-minute penalty from which Raul Rusescu had opened the scoring. "This is the most important match I have played in," said the 21-year-old Montenegrin forward. "The fans were fantastic. They supported us when it was 0-0 and 1-1 and we have to be grateful to them. We wrote history. I won't speak about the final – let's take it step by step. But we will give everything on the pitch, though you can never be sure about the results."
The same calm approach was adopted by captain Alexandru Bourceanu after the hosts pipped both AEK and Maccabi Haifa FC to second place behind FC Schalke 04. "The final? Let's see who we get in the next round," the midfielder said. "We can't think so far ahead." Bucharest locals, however, may struggle to keep the 9 May showpiece at the National Arena off their minds.
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