Steaua dream nears reality

FC Steaua Bucuresti feel they are in with an excellent chance of a return to the group stage this season.

By Paul-Daniel Zaharia in Bucharest

FC Steaua Bucuresti are the only Romanian club to have won the European Champions' Club Cup, overcoming FC Barcelona in the final in 1986, and also remain the only Divizia A side to have competed in the UEFA Champions League group stages, taking part in 1994/95, 1995/96 and 1996/97.

Path blocked
However, since that last appearance, Steaua have found their path to Europe's top table blocked. And for Steaua's outspoken but proud owner Gigi Becali, that is a situation unbefitting of Romania's most successful club, who have 22 league and 20 Romanian Cup titles to their name.

Becali's dream
Since taking over at the club five years ago, Becali has invested a huge amount in pursuit of his dream of Champions League qualification. Even though it has put him in €13m worth of debt to the state, he has kept wages and bonuses high to dissuade his best players from moving abroad.

Favourable draw
This season, it looks like that investment may have paid off. While previous draws have not favoured Steaua, it seems that they may have a path to the group stages this season, after last week's third qualifying round draw paired the winner of their game against Shelbourne FC with Rosenborg BK.

Bullish response
Even though they have yet to beat the Irish champions, Becali was in bullish mood after the draw. "Our executive president Mihai Stoica told me that Rosenborg were the most beatable seeded team in the draw," he said. "We are 80 per cent qualified for the group stage."

Protasov pressure
Such prognostications will hardly lift the pressure off the shoulders of Steaua coach Oleg Protasov, whose side could only draw 0-0 in the first leg against Shelbourne in Dublin. "It will be very tough against Shelbourne," he said. "Let's think about Rosenborg after the second leg against Shelbourne."

Cluj deserters
For some, Protasov has a right to be nervous. With the club's mounting debts, he has been unable to strengthen his side much during the summer, while Steaua's best player of last season - 37-year-old Dorinel Munteanu - left to become coach of CFR Cluj, taking goalkeeper Martin Tudor with him.

Lone signing
The Cluj contingent have thrived since leaving Steaua and are now only one game away from one of the three UEFA Intertoto Cup finals, but Steaua - with their lone summer signing, CF Otelul Galati striker Victoras Iacob - have not made such a sparkling start to the season.

Domestic defeat
The Romanian domestic season began at the weekend with Steaua losing 3-2 against FC Dinamo Bucuresti in the Romanian Super Cup final - a result which, coupled with the draw in Dublin, has seen Protasov receive negative comparisons to his predecessor Walter Zenga.

Unified focus
None the less, this is not the time for back-biting. Everyone at the club is only too aware of how important the coming European ties are. "Nothing else counts, only qualification," said defender George Ogararu. "You cannot know when we will have such opponents again. It could not be a better draw."

Norwegian novelty
Not that anyone at Steaua is underestimating Rosenborg, despite their disappointing start to the season in Norway. It is just that the novelty of having a third qualifying round opponent who looks anything other than unbeatable is something of a novelty.

Unequivocal disaster
The hope now is that this excitement does not go to Steaua's heads against Shelbourne. Failure to reach the group stage after two legs against Rosenborg would be a disappointment. Stumbling against Shelbourne with the finish-line in sight would be a disaster.