Gigi Becali, a devout Christian and the president of Steaua Bucharest, spent two days praying for victory in the monasteries of the Athos Mountains prior to his club's appearance in the Uefa Cup semi-final. His request was answered last night at the expense of Middlesbrough, but Steve McClaren will not have to seek spiritual salvation in Greece to keep his faith in the Teessider's European journey.
A third away defeat in succession befell McClaren's men in Romania, although it was neither as severe as the quarter-final loss they suffered in Basle or as convincing as Steaua should have made it. "I would have taken 1-0 as the game went on, most definitely," admitted the Middlesbrough manager. "Mark Schwarzer made some great saves to keep us in the tie. Bucharest are a very good side with a good away record, but I saw enough in the game to know we will have chances at The Riverside next week." By which time his next career move may be clearer than Middlesbrough's Uefa Cup prospects.
McClaren had prioritised history above the future by imploring his players to grasp the opportunity of the club's first European final and to ignore his possible succession to the England throne, a likely development that he is not prepared to discuss outside FA headquarters. The sight of Sven Goran Eriksson mingling with the dignitaries at the Lin Manoliu Stadium was a clear show of support from the Swede for his England assistant and potential heir.
Eriksson would have recognised the caution in Middlesbrough's opening, with both side's midfields remaining deep and depriving the forwards of support. As more composure crept into their performance so a nervousness began to unsettle Middlesbrough and in the 30th minute their intended priority of a clean sheet was ruined by Nicolae Dica.
A throw from George Ogararu found Mirel Radoi on the edge of the area and when the Steaua captain chested the ball into the goalmouth the Middlesbrough defence were found wanting for a second time as Dica was allowed to collect, turn and send a rising shot beyond Schwarzer. It was, in fairness, a fine forward's goal against a side shorn of its first choice centre-halves through injury and suspension, and tarnished for the scorer when he was booked for raising his shirt in celebration. The yellow card was shown to three more Romanians before the interval and two, central midfielder Sorin Paraschiv and the impressive winger Banel Nicolita, now miss the second leg through suspension.
Next week it would be remiss of Middlesbrough to rely as heavily on the long balls that peppered their performance last night, although it was George Boateng's cross that almost delivered a precious away goal when the presence if not the final touch of Yakubu forced Carlos Fernandes to turn the ball on to his own crossbar. The Steaua goalkeeper produced an outstanding reaction save to deny James Morrison at the resulting corner and yet his contribution was secondary to that of Schwarzer who made crucial stops from both the Bucharest defender and goalscorer Dica in the second half.
"We began to look fatigued but our character, grit and determination held out," McClaren said.
Petre Marin should have broken Schwarzer's resistance when he broke into the area only to shoot wide, and Fernandes almost fumbled Massimo Maccarone's drive into the path of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. It was not to be, a fair result endured, but Middlesbrough know they have recovered from greater reverses than this.
* In last night's other Uefa Cup semi-final first-leg match, at the Parkstadion, hosts Schalke were unable to find a way past Seville's inspirational goalkeeper Andres Palop in a 0-0 draw.
Steaua Bucharest (4-4-2): Fernandes; Ogararu, Goian, Ghionea, Marin; Nicolita, Paraschiv (Lovin, 86), Radoi, Bostina; Dica, Oprita (Cristea, 89). Substitutes not used: Cernea (gk), Balan, Cristocea, Nesu, Baciu,.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Parnaby, Ehiogu, Bates, Queudrue; Morrison (Parlour, 70), Boateng, Rochemback, Downing; Yakubu (Maccarone, 70), Hasselbaink. Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Christie, Doriva, Wheater, Taylor.
Referee: A Hamer (Luxembourg).Reuse content