FC Steaua Bucureşti need to arrest a dismal run of home UEFA Champions League results as SK Slavia Praha visit if they are to stay in European competition.
FC Steaua Bucureşti must arrest an alarming run of home results in the UEFA Champions League if they are to record the victory they need against SK Slavia Praha to maintain aspirations of European football in the new year.
The Romanian champions are yet to collect a point in Group H and sit four behind their Czech visitors with two rounds to play – largely because Slavia won the corresponding fixture 2-1 in Prague on Matchday 1. Steaua have since changed both their coach, Marius Lăcătuş replacing Massimo Pedrazzini, and their fortunes, Saturday's 1-0 derby defeat of FC Dinamo 1948 Bucureşti lifting them up to fifth in Liga 1. "You can imagine that morale would have been much lower had we not beaten Dinamo," Lăcătuş said.
"We're now full of confidence and I believe if we play the same way against Slavia as we did against Dinamo, we will win," continued the former Romanian international. "This is a really important match and we have to continue our run of positive results." Winning domestically and winning in Europe do not go hand in hand, however, and Steaua last tasted a group-stage victory in the Romanian capital on 16 October 1996, 1-0 against Widzew Łódź of Poland, when Lăcătuş was wearing the No7 shirt.
"We haven't struggled massively in this competition but it's difficult to win matches at this level," he added. "We've always given our best but have always had tough opponents. The bigger clubs have the squads to cope with playing every three days – this is the main difference." The coach will select "only players who are 100 per cent fit" on Tuesday, so winger Bănel Nicoliţă misses his first European match of the season after damaging his right ankle on his return from another injury on Saturday. Victoraş Iacob is also doubtful after hurting his back in training last week.
Run of draws
Lăcătuş says Slavia will not lack self-belief either, the Czechs having held Arsenal FC last time out, although Friday's home draw with SK Sigma Olomouc was their third such result in four top-flight fixtures. A similar outcome in Bucharest is all they require to reach the UEFA Cup as Group H's third-placed team, yet coach Karel Jarolím is determined to push for victory while there remains a possibility of making the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League. "I would rather win and qualify for the UEFA Cup that way," he said. "If we win we can still dream of qualification; if we draw we cannot."
Jarolím hopes Arsenal will do his side a favour at Sevilla FC in the other game – the Spanish club are five points ahead of his team – but knows Slavia must also deliver in Romania. "Steaua's most dangerous player is Nicolae Dică but I thought Adrian Neaga played very well against Dinamo," he said. "Steaua are very strong from set-pieces. We were prepared for this when they came to Prague, but that remains their main threat." Two of Slavia's men most likely, midfielder Vladimír Šmicer (knee) and forward Stanislav Vlček (thigh), have not travelled due to injuries sustained in domestic action on Friday.