Middlesbrough – Steaua, a night(mare) to remember, It happened in April 2006, but I can clearly remember that night and all the events prior to this match.
The story actually begins in 2005 when Steaua, managed by Inter’s legendary goalkeeper Walter Zenga defeated Valencia in the Last 32 round of UEFA Cup. Valencia was at that time the reigning champion of the competition and had players like Ruben Baraja, Albelda, Aimar or Di Vaio.
It represented the night that resurrected Romanian football at club level in European competitions. A foreign coach showed us that with the correct mentality we can fight and defeat any “giant”.
Fast forward to 2006, Steaua nearly missed to qualify in the UEFA Champions’ League group stage and ends up in UEFA Cup group stage along Lens, Hertha Berlin, Sampdoria and Halmstad. Two wins and two draws helps them win the group and advance to the group stage. Dutch team Heerenveen and Spanish side Betis Seville are the victims in the Last 32 and Last 16 round, respectively.
The quarter-finals of UEFA Cup brought us as opponent longtime rivals Rapid Bucharest. It was a rough double-leg and we advanced to the semifinals thanks to the away goal rule (1-1 away and 0-0 at home). And then came Boro.
We knew Ugo Ehioghu (RIP big man), Southgate, Rochemback from his time at Barcelona, Hasselbaink, Yakubu, ex-Arsenal’s Ray Parlour or Mark Viduka, but the team didn’t scared us, even though they defeated Basel 4-1 after 0-2 in first leg. Hah, once in a lifetime comeback, am I right?
Reaching the semifinals of a European cup was the best result for a Romanian team since 1989, when Steaua faced the great AC Milan in European Champions Cup final, so all the fans got the feeling that we are destined for greatness that season.
On the pitch, the two teams are pretty equal, with good chances for both of them. About half an hour into the game, Ogăraru throws a long ball, Rădoi passes to Dică, and our star player pivots next to Boateng and shoots… and scores!!! Steaua takes the first step towards the grand final and I’m already searching for tickets to Eindhoven.
The second half also finds the two teams going head-to-head and the scoreboard remains unchanged. One week until the second leg and 90 minutes until we’re playing a final again.
April 27th, Riverside Stadium. Over 32000 supporters in the stands. But who’s standing? Everyone is on their feet, chanting and cheering.
15 minutes into the game, Petre Marin tries a long range, Bradley blocks, the ball scrambles to Dică, a dribbling and goooooal, 1-0! After another 10 minutes, Steaua gets a corner, Boro’s defenders don’t manage to clear the ball, it bounces back to Goian and it’s 2-0! That’s surely the end of the result dilemma and we’re wondering who we are going to play against in the UEFA Cup final? Will it be Seville or Schalke?
And then comes Maccarone, replacing captain Gareth Southgate. Just a few moments later, Boro tries a long ball towards Hasselbaink, our center defenders Goian and Ghionea steps on each other toes, the ball reaches the right side, where the Italian striker advances alone, shoots past Steaua’s goalkeeper and Boro’s back in the game.
I distinctly remember texting a friend at half-time saying I had a bad feeling and that I was more scared then, at 3-1 on aggregate with 45 minutes to play than I was at the beginning of the game, with only one goal advantage and 90 minutes to play.
The second half begins, Boro is attacking on all fronts, and we’re rarely managing to tie more than 4-5 passes before losing the ball, but the minutes pass by in our advantage. 30 minutes left until the final whistle and the big final.
Around 64 minutes, a cross comes from the left side, Carlos gets under the ball and Mark Viduka doesn’t forgive. It’s 2-2, but we were still pretty confident as Boro needed 4 goals but Steaua conceived only 3 goals in 11 matches in Europe since the group stages.
For many of us, a psychological moment happened in the 70th minute, when Dică plays a ball with the hand and receives a yellow card. He’s absolutely devastated! He’s going to miss the final! From that moment on, Steaua played in just ten men, as our playmaker didn’t manage to get back mentally into the game.
Five minutes later, another blow: a cross from the right side, our defenders aren’t able to kick away the ball, and Riggott scores. Our worst fears start to become real as we see the qualification slipping through our fingers. The boys don’t manage to tie more than 1-2 passes before trying a long pass and losing the ball in the middle of the field. The pressure become more and more powerful on the defence. Actually what defence? All the team is packed around our penalty box, and Boro is moving the ball from one side to another like a handball team searching for a breach.
The last few minutes of extra-time were a blur, I only remember that Steaua had a free kick from just outside of the penalty box that was blocked by the wall. Maybe using a little handball, but the referee didn’t blow his whistle.
The match was over. The dream was over. It’s 4-2… 4-2! Another un-fing-believable comeback. I was speechless. I am still struggling to find my words now, more than 11 years later. Last year, “Replay” (a Romanian TV show dedicated to presenting older football matches) did a ten-year anniversary edition of the 2005-2006 UEFA Cup route of Steaua. The “UEFAntastics” as they got nicknamed. I followed the extended highlight almost to the point of Macarone’s victory goal before turning the TV off. Rewatching those moments got me feeling nervous and awful all over again and I couldn’t bear to see the final minute. It’s still too painful.
From that year on, Steaua got to play three consecutive years in Champions League groups, while Middlesbrough had a less than pleasant road. Maybe that’s the price you pay for a night “beyond belief” as English newspapers titled…