It was Eighties night down at St Mary's and Southampton enjoyed a fortuitous revival to preserve their unbeaten start to the season. Whether or not they will be able to progress beyond this tetchy tie, however, must be in severe doubt despite Kevin Phillips' equalising goal.
For both clubs, memories of European football are embedded in the 1980s. For Southampton it was simply when they last qualified (three times - most recently in 1984), for Steaua it was a little more emphatic - reaching two European Cup finals and winning the trophy in 1986. However, that victory is best-known for being the worst final ever played.
They showed much more last night, proving themselves to be an accomplished opponent against a Southampton side which betrayed a lack of experience. Europe may prove a brief flirtation, although the Saints' manager, Gordon Strachan, was at his optimistic best afterwards. "It was a big occasion. Nineteen years [since the last European tie]. And maybe the players were expecting something that was not there. There is nothing to be scared of... I'm reasonably happy with the result."
Strachan also has memories of the Eighties. He was, of course, part of the Aberdeen team which won the European Cup-Winners' Cup. But this was the first time he had taken charge at this level. The nerves showed. Three times in the opening 10 minutes the Romanians went close, with the dangerous Claudiu Raducanu squandering the best of those opportunities as he tried to be too precise with a side-footed volley.
The fluidity of Steaua's formation left the home side appearing leaden. Strachan's only concession to this environment was to include his most creative midfield player, Anders Svensson, who is out of favour in the Premiership and out of sorts. Otherwise it was regimental 4-4-2 and it was quickly undone. Jason Dodd played four Steaua players on-side and from Florentin Dumitru's cross, Raducanu stooped to head in from four yards. It was the first goal Southampton had conceded at home since April.
Victor Piturca, the Steaua coach, who played in their Eighties team alongside Marius Lacatus and Gheorghe Hagi, saw them take control in their 155th European tie especially through the powerful Cameroon midfielder N'Gassam Nana Falemi.
Southampton toiled. Their anxiety showed. Too many attacks ended in desperate shots from distance and over-hit crosses with Graeme le Saux - their most experienced performer - particularly culpable while James Beattie was too easily marshalled. The commitment was there if not the composure and, in first-half injury time, after Anders Svensson's shot was blocked, the ball spun to Phillips who found only the goalkeeper's legs.
Phillips' luck soon turned. After the break, Matthew Oakley hustled in midfield and the ball broke to the former Sunderland striker, who screwed it through the goalkeeper's legs from an acute angle for his first home goal. Hope. And with that the tempo quickened - much to Southampton's delight as they pushed Le Saux on. Michael Svensson charged forward only to plant his header - from a Le Saux centre - skywards. He then did it again.
Southampton's tactics were clear. Time after time the ball was pumped forward. Patience was a distant afterthought. Phillips missed the best chance of taking a slender lead to Bucharest when he, too, headed over. Beattie's biggest contribution was a crunching tackle. That said it all.
"I told the players 'you' and 'unbeaten' were still in the same sentence and that can only be good," Strachan reasoned. True. But it may not be enough.
Southampton (4-4-2): Jones; Dodd (Delap, 84), Lundekvam, M Svensson, Le Saux; Fernandes (Telfer, 84), A Svensson, Oakley, Marsden (McCann, 67); Phillips, Beattie. Substitutes not used: Niemi (gk), Higginbotham, Tessem, Ormerod.
Steaua Bucharest (5-4-1): Hamutovski; Dumitru, Radoi, Rachita, Mutica, Stoica; Aliuta (Paraschiv, 83), Falemi, Oprita (Ogararu, 74), Bostina; Raducanu (Niculescu, 86). Substitutes not used: Tudor (gk), Pitu, Neaga, Nanu.
Referee: T Skjerven (Nor).Reuse content