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Unirea to show Zenit a united front

Having made a virtue of thrift in uncertain times, FC Unirea Urziceni hope coach Roni Levy's commitment to "a group ethos and team spirit" can unsettle rivals FC Zenit St. Petersburg.

Marius Ioan Bilaşco and George Galamaz celebrate a goal in last season's group stage
Marius Ioan Bilaşco and George Galamaz celebrate a goal in last season's group stage ©Getty Images

With a stable squad and settled coach, FC Unirea Urziceni have barely troubled the Romanian media over the summer, but hope to make headlines as they meet FC Zenit St. Petersburg in the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round.

Runners-up to CFR 1907 Cluj last season, the deposed titleholders have put the accent on continuity this close season. There has been no player exodus and Israeli coach Roni Levy – hired back in December – is showing every intention of at least serving out his 18-month contract.

Never big spenders, Unirea's summer recruiting campaign has netted just three players: 36-year-old FC Steaua Bucureşti defender Petre Marin, sometime Romania striker Adrian Neaga – last at PFC Neftçi in Azerbaijan – and French forward Maurice Dalé, who gained promotion to Ligue 1 with AC Arles-Avignon last term.

For some, it looks unambitious; for Levy, it is a badge of honour. "Why should we buy a load of new players?" said the 43-year-old, who won three successive Israeli titles as Maccabi Haifa FC coach between 2004 and 2006. "We have some very good boys, capable of performing in Romania and in Europe, but the most important thing for us is the fact we have a group ethos and team spirit. I don't know any coach who would say he did not need new and better players, but I like my team and I am satisfied."

Levy's faith in his side was not too shaken after they lost 2-0 on penalties to double winners CFR in the Romanian Super Cup at the weekend, after a 2-2 draw over 120 minutes. Unirea had succumbed on spot kicks to the same opponents in last year's curtain-raiser, but spirits have not been crushed. "We are very upset, but we feel much stronger than last season," said international forward Marius Ioan Bilaşco. "I think the weaknesses we had in 2009/10 have been addressed by the three new signings."

Unirea failed to score from four attempts in the Super Cup shoot-out, with CFR's Nuno Claro saving three of them, yet with the Romanian season starting this weekend, Levy has no wish to return to the drawing board. "Mistakes are part of football," he said. "I am proud of my players – they gave everything and I respect them for that. Now we have to concentrate on taking the next matches one at a time, first against CS Pandurii in the league, then against Zenit."

The 2007/08 UEFA Cup winners, Zenit top the Russian table and, with their domestic campaign having started in March, will present a stiff test of Unirea's strength and togetherness. Captain George Galamaz, however, thinks his team are up to it. "We respect Zenit, they have fantastic players, but we are not afraid." Iulian Apostol, who will miss the matches on 27 July and 3 August through injury, agreed. "We have a 50% chance," said the midfielder. "We know what Zenit have achieved, but we have to go into the game believing we can do it."

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