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Paulo Sergio adding bite to tiny team from Transylvania

PAULO SERGIO can almost taste the claret in the Old Trafford manager's office.

Paulo Sergio is on the brink of guiding CFR Cluj to the last 16
Paulo Sergio is on the brink of guiding CFR Cluj to the last 16

The former Hearts coach led Romanian club CFR Cluj to a 3-1 Champions League victory against Braga on Tuesday, a result that eliminated his fellow Portuguese from the competition and allows the tiny Transylvanian club to travel to England with aspirations of gatecrashing the top-16 teams in the continent.

Sergio replaced Ioan Andone to become Cluj's 16th coach since 2001 on October 28, too late to preside over the 2-1 defeat by Manchester United in Romania. But getting the chance pit his wits against Sir Alex Ferguson then talk football will be a memory he will treasure. "Everybody wants these moments in their careers and I am no different," Sergio told Herald Sport last night.

"We know that it will be a huge challenge but we will try to be ready. We are going to do what we always do – try to be compact and well organised. And in football you never know; anything is possible. We will come up with a strategy to try to get something out of the game. I have never met Sir Alex before but it will be very pleasant to be with him. What he has done in football is a reference for all the younger ones to follow, for anyone who wants to improve in the game. He is a reference for me, also."

The goals that enabled Cluj to complete a Champions League double against Braga were scored by Rui Pedro, and one of a nine-strong contingent of Portuguese players in the squad, in addition to three Portuguese-speaking Brazilians. "We say – joking a bit – that when we went to Cluj we are working with more Portuguese players than when we were working in Portugal," explained Sergio. "That is how it is at this club. They have been bringing Portuguese players over for years, and now they also have Portuguse coaches. We train in good conditions, the club is very well organised and, hopefully, we will achieve our targets at the end of the season."

Sergio has every reason to have mixed feelings about his time at Hearts, having been rewarded for the epoch-defining 5-1 Scottish Cup final victory over Hibernian with a vastly-reduced contract offer. But not a bit of it. He is keeping abreast of developments in Gorgie, where fans are trying to raise funds to meet an outstanding tax bill of £450,000 ahead of the revised December 3 deadline.

Sergio believes the supporters deserve better and asked Vladimir Romanov to do the right thing. "I don't want to believe Hearts will die," said Sergio. "I have been following what is happening with the great supporters and what they are doing for their club and I hope Mr Romanov makes the right step. The supporters don't deserve to be in a situation like this. Hopefully Mr Romanov will fix it, even if it does take to the last minute. He has to do what he has to do, but Hearts deserve to have a great future and a great life because they are a fantastic football club."

It hasn't taken long for the 44-year-old from Estremoz to compartmentalise his Scottish experience. "I was disappointed about the manner of leaving because I would like to have stayed," he said. "But I have to respect what happened, because they couldn't pay the money to keep me. I had to understand the situation.

"It is not true that I watch the DVD of the cup final every night, I have no time for that. In fact, I can tell you I have never watched the game again. One of these days I will do but it is still fresh in my memory anyway, so I don't need the DVD to remember. But I have great memories of my time at Hearts and I miss Scotland, too. Someday I will relive that. Who knows when but when I do it will be a great pleasure because I had so many friends there. I left with a great impression of the country and about everyone who was involved."

With Cluj in sixth place domestically, Sergio rates his current role as the toughest of his career, as he will have presided over 17 matches in all competitions by the time he finally gets a breather in December 15.

Landing a job elsewhere in the UK was a aim when he left Tynecastle and remains on his to-do list. "My name was on the table of a few clubs who were changing managers," he said. "I was waiting and this situation came up and I said yes. The fact we were playing in the Champions League meant I was very motivated and it was very good for my cv.

"We have tried to implement our ideas, but we have to play and recover, play and recover, and it has been very tough but, hopefully, we are going to arrive where we want. In football every achievement has its own importance. Winning the cup with Hearts was a great moment, and taking Cluj through would be another great moment. It is still a target for my career to work again in the UK. I love the atmosphere in England and Scotland and I hope one day I can achieve that again."

On the same night as he is supping at football's top table, Sergio will be intrigued to learn how events have unfolded in Glasgow and Barcelona, as his countrymen at Benfica endeavour to equal or better Celtic's result against Spartak Moscow. "I believe Celtic have the better position and I am quite sure they will take this opportunity," said Sergio. "I am quite sure they are going to qualify."

Far fetched or not, that return visit to Scotland could even be pencilled in for the knockout stages. "It would be great to meet up again with my friend Neil [Lennon] and all of the guys," said Sergio. "It would mean both of us are doing quite well."

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