More than 25 years have passed since May 1986, when Steaua Bucharest beat Barcelona on penalties in the final of the European Champions Cup, the predecessor to today’s UEFA Champions League. At the time, Marius Pena was exactly one year and five days old.
It's little wonder then that the Otelul Galati striker has no memories whatsoever of the solitary occasion on which a Romanian club won the most prestigious club competition in Europe. A quarter of a century later, Pena is busily making history on the continent’s elite stage.
Pena had the honour of scoring Galati’s maiden Champions League goal, although Otelul ended up on the wrong end of a 2–1 scoreline to Basel in their first group stage fixture. “It was the most important goal of my career, but unluckily for us, we lost the match," the centre-forward exclusively recalled for FIFA.com.
The Romanian champions then failed to find the net in their next two games, losing 1–0 to Portuguese heavyweights Benfica and 2–0 at home to Manchester United, but Pena is keen to remedy the situation as soon as possible. “I'm hoping to score several more goals which actually lead to us taking points, because goals are worth nothing otherwise."
The match in Manchester will be the biggest game of our lives.
The next opportunity presents itself on Wednesday night when the 26-year-old and his team-mates visit Old Trafford, as the Red Devils from Manchester entertain the Otelarii, the Steelworkers, from the industrial West Moldavia region on the Lower Danube.
“The match in Manchester will be the biggest game of our lives. I'm unbelievably excited about the experience. We're aiming to play with lots of courage and big hearts in England. Maybe we'll pull off a shock and come away from United with a draw," Pena told FIFA.com.
The Romanians will approach the meeting with the Premier League's most successful club in confident mood, as with a little more luck, Galati might have taken a point off United in the first meeting two weeks ago. Two penalties from Wayne Rooney ultimately earned the English champions their first win in Group C, leaving Pena and company bottom of the standings with no points at the halfway mark.
“We showed plenty of bravery. We were better than against Benfica, and we even created a few chances," the Galati striker said, drawing positive conclusions from the first meeting with Sir Alex Ferguson's side.
“All in all, it's a magnificent privilege for us to be taking on the best clubs in Europe. If I had the choice, we’d play in the Champions League every season. It's the best and biggest competition, and being part of it is a wonderful feeling," declared Pena, combining a sense of awe and wonderment with the typical grim determination of the underdog.
The team coached by former Bundesliga pro Dorinel Munteanu won the Romanian title last term for the first time in their 47-year history, but their European commitments are currently a welcome diversion from a patchy domestic campaign. After 12 matches, Galati lie a disappointing eighth, although that is still one place ahead of struggling Steaua.
Pena and his team-mates go into their three remaining Champions League fixtures with two chief goals: first, to enhance the reputation of Romanian football in Europe, and also to snatch third spot and book a place in the UEFA Europa League.
“We regard Basel as our rivals for third place, but making it into the Europa League will be tough now, because the Swiss are doing better than we thought they would. Our home meeting with Basel in mid-November is a must-win match for us," Pena told FIFA.com as he eyed a historic first-ever win in Europe's top tournament.
Galati realistically need points from all three of their remaining group matches to preserve a chance of following in the footsteps of Steaua (2006/7) and Unirea Urziceni (2009/10), both of whom made it into the UEFA Cup/Europa League via the Champions League group stage.
The men in red, white and blue may find it tough to take anything from the game in Manchester, but a shock victory would sit nicely alongside their maiden championship and first-ever goal on the biggest European stage.
Overall, a creditable display would certainly do Pena no personal harm at all as he seeks to fulfil his lifetime dream. "I’d like to play abroad at some point, and I really like the look of Germany or England. I’m absolutely sure I’d be up to the job."