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Shelbourne in shape for Steaua

Shelbourne FC hope their extra sharpness will pay dividends against a full-strength FC Steaua Bucuresti side.

By Aidan Fitzmaurice & Paul-Daniel Zaharia

Shelbourne FC's new-found European strength comes under severe examination tonight when they welcome Romanian title-holders FC Steaua Bucuresti to the Republic of Ireland for the first leg of their UEFA Champions League second qualifying round tie.

Irish success
Twelve months ago, Shelbourne set an Irish tournament record by winning through to the third qualifying round, beating HNK Hajduk Split at this stage before holding RC Deportivo La Coruña for 149 minutes of their eventual defeat. Irish football is certainly benefiting from the move to a summer season in 2003 as all three clubs from the Republic - Shelbourne, Cork City FC and Longford Town FC - won their first matches in current UEFA competitions.

Extra sharpness
Shelbourne overcame Glentoran FC 6-2 on aggregate in the last round, and come into this debut encounter with a Romanian team with almost 30 competitive games under their belts while Steaua face their first serious match of 2005/06. Home manager Pat Fenlon believes that sharpness could pay dividends.

'In our stride'
"Hopefully it will count for something - we have played a lot of games and are in our stride, while Steaua are only back in pre-season and this will be their first game," said Fenlon, who lost twice in UEFA competition to Romanian opposition as a player, with Saint Patrick's Athletic FC against FC Dinamo Bucuresti in 1990 and Bohemian FC versus Steaua in 1992.

European experience
"We built up a lot of experience in our European games last summer when we had eight matches, and we have experienced players like Alan Moore and Curtis Fleming, who have played at senior level for Ireland, so I think we can give a good account of ourselves."

Full-strength Steaua
Midfielder Alan Reynolds and defender Jamie Harris are the only absentees for Shelbourne, who were boosted by the signing of former Middlesbrough FC man Fleming last week. Steaua have a full-strength squad with one new arrival, striker Constantin Iacob from FC Otelul Galati.

Fine form
Two players have left the 1986 European champions since their 22nd Romanian title triumph - goalkeeper Martin Tudor and veteran midfielder Dorinel Munteanu, both to CFR Cluj. But Steaua have been in fine form, winning all five of their pre-season friendlies, including four against foreign opposition in a recent Austrian training camp.

Confidence high
Confidence is high, and club owner Gigi Becali declared: "I am going to conquer Europe." However, coach Oleg Protasov, appointed last month, warned: "Shelbourne showed against Glentoran that they can score goals and they can be dangerous. We believe in our chances, but I know very well that it will not be easy."

Respect for Shelbourne
Executive president Mihai Stoica concurred, saying: "Shelbourne play a European style of football, not a British one. It will be difficult." Defender Sorin Ghionea added: "Our attitude will be important. It would be a huge mistake to underestimate our opponents, to say we are through before the matches are even played." The return is next Wednesday in Bucharest.