FC Astra will be taking a step into the unknown when they contest their first ever UEFA club competition game this week, but the Romanian side are nothing if not adaptable after living through another major change of identity last year.
Astra are currently preparing to meet Slovenian outfit NK Domžale in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League first qualifying round tie this Thursday, having finished fourth in the Romanian First Division in 2012/13. That made last season their most successful ever, but it came after the club had left their traditional home in Ploiesti to move to Giurgiu, close to the Bulgarian border about 60km south of Bucharest – and the base of operations of businessman and owner Ioan Niculae, who felt that Giurgiu offered greater opportunities for expansion.
The club have been warmly welcomed by football fans in Giurgiu, yet the switch has brought its own logistical headaches. A town of around 54,000 inhabitants, Giurgiu has just two hotels, and Astra had to cross into Bulgaria last October to prepare for a league game with CSMS Iaşi as both hotels were full – one being occupied by Iaşi and the other taken up by a wedding party. As proof of their flexibility, though, Astra won the match 1-0.
The club will have to travel again for their home leg against Domžale on 11 July, their own ground being unsuitable for UEFA competition. Instead, they will make the National Arena in Bucharest their temporary home as they commence a European adventure that was only a distant dream until recently.
Indeed, the club originally founded in 1934 ceased to exist following a merger with FC Petrolul Ploieşti in 2003, and it took the efforts of Niculae to relaunch the outfit in 2005. Starting off in the lower leagues as CSM FC Ploiești, they eventually regained the top flight in 2009, whereupon Niculae renamed the side FC Astra Ploieşti and reintroduced the traditional club colours of black and white.
Although they owe their UEFA Europa League place to former local rivals Petrolul, whose Romanian Cup win opened up another berth in the league, Astra are now enjoying unprecedented success. They are achieving it with a noticeably metropolitan squad too, with 41-year-old coach Daniel Isăilă able to call upon the likes of Japanese midfielder and club captain Takayuki Seto and, normally, Nigerian forward Kehinde Fatai.
However, in a blow to Astra's first-leg chances, Fatai has not travelled to Slovenia due to visa problems, meaning Isăilă will be without his 14-goal top scorer from last term. Romanian internationals Silviu Lung, Alexandru Mățel and Valerică Găman add their own qualities to the mix, however.
The Giurgiu side hope to strengthen as well, although they are in no rush to raid the transfer market. "We need some new players, but we have to take it easy," said Niculae. "They have to be players of quality who will help the team; it wouldn't make sense to bring in new players just for the sake of it. But if we do recruit some players, we will do it after the first qualifying round. We need players who are used to playing each other against Domžale."
"We are in advanced talks for four players and we should sort that out this week," added chairman Dinu Gheorghe, who expects Astra to sail through their latest test. "We have to eliminate Domžale: there is a real difference in the quality of the two teams."
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