Romania, a country who have tended to punch above their weight in international football, have just endured their least successful World Cup qualifying campaign, which included losing 5-0 to Serbia last week, while on the domestic front the big Bucharest clubs have been well and truly dethroned. And it gets even more astonishing -- for the last 12 rounds of games in Romania last season, foreign referees were drafted in. Can you imagine that happening at, say, an Old Firm game?

In the event, Dan Petrescu -- the manager of Unirea Urziceni, Rangers’ visitors to Ibrox in the Champions League tonight -- attributed his team’s Liga I title conquest to the levelling influence of such arbitrators.

“There is a god of soccer, who brought foreign referees to our championship and so it was possible for the best team to win,” said the former Chelsea full-back, who played 95 times for his country. “Without foreign referees, Unirea would never have won the title.”

Admittedly another provincial club, CFR Cluj, had set a precedent the previous season, but not without a Steaua Bucharest official being intercepted in possession of a case stuffed with €1.7m in cash before the champions elect played their final game of the campaign, victory in which wrapped up their first-ever league triumph.

Gigi Becali, Steaua’s chairman, had been implicated in bribery cases before, but last season brought a new round of scandal. First Cornel Penescu, owner of Arges Pitesti, was arrested on suspicion of bribing match officials, and soon after Gheorge Constantin, chairman of the referees’ committee, the referees’ “observer” Marcel Lica, and three match officials, were charged with helping Arges to win games.

As doubts about results in other matches grew, the Romanian Football Federation, under pressure from several of the smaller clubs, supporters in general and the media, made the decision to deploy non-Romanian officials. Petrescu’s side, representing a town of 17,000 inhabitants, came through as champions, with Timisoara, another upstart club, beating Dinamo Bucharest into third and clinching the second Champions League qualifying spot. Steaua finished in sixth place and Rapid in eighth.

All three Bucharest clubs fired their coaches, while Dinamo supporters invaded the pitch in protest in their final game of the season, which they lost 5-2 away to Arges. Mihair Stoica, Unirea’s president, declared, however: “Our players are great men. They were always abused by almost of all our opponents, journalists and officials. Our players switched the negative energies to positive ones and this was the source of the biggest-ever surprise in Romanian football.”

Unirea are playing their home matches in the Champions League 25 kilometres down the road at Steaua’s Stadionul Steaua. Their own Tineretului Stadium, capacity 7000, does not meet UEFA’s requirements. In 2002, when the team were taken over by a new sponsor, Valahorum, they were competing in the country’s third division. In 2003 they won promotion to Liga II for the first time in their history, and were newly promoted to the top flight when Petrescu took over in 2006, following indifferent spells in charge at Sportul Studentesc Bucharest and Wisla Krakow.

With Mihair Stoica, Steaua’s former president, brought on board in 2007, in Petrescu’s second term Unirea qualified for last season’s UEFA Cup. They bowed out against Hamburg, losing 2-0 at home after holding them to a goalless draw in Germany. But domestic glory lay in wait, and by June of this year their fairytale rise was complete.

In assessing the threat they pose Rangers it is difficult to pinpoint individuals to watch out for or contain. In a country where even the dominant clubs are hardly flush with cash, Unirea invested a good deal less than their competitors to win the title, Petrescu working mainly with players unloved by other managers.

They don’t score much but they are compact and unyielding at the back: in the league last season they conceding a mere 20 goals. The only international experience in the side is in defence and in defensive midfield, where Petrescu strengthened in the summer with the additions of former Steaua captain Sorin Paraschiv, a holding midfielder, and former Rapid captain Vasile Maftei, a centre back.

Pablo Brandan, an Argentinian centre-back, a Portuguese winger from Steaua in Anontio Semedo and a Brazilian midfielder in Ricardo Gomes (not the one that used to play for Benfica, PSG and, indeed, Brazil) were also recruited ahead of the club’s maiden Champions League campaign, although they missed out on Morton’s Jim McAlister, who decided to go on trial at Watford instead.

There are obvious illustrious precedents in terms of managers who take journeymen players and mould them, in their own image, into successful fighting units. Petrescu, who has spoken of wanting to manage in England at some stage, would certainly appear to have the bolshiness required to emulate them.

In Unirea’s last Champions League Group G game, which followed a 2-0 opening day defeat in Seville, Stuttgart ran over the top of his side for long spells but could only manage a 1-1 draw in Romania. Points dropped, the star of his country’s 1998 World Cup campaign insisted.

All of which suggests he will encourage his players to be fearless at Ibrox. Petrescu played in a losing side, one including the magnificent Gheorghe Hagi and Marius Lacatus, in Govan in 1987, but a 2-1 reverse was enough for the Romanians to march into the European Cup semi-finals courtesy of a 3-2 aggregate victory.

Walter Smith admitted he knew nothing about Unirea when the sides were drawn together in August, but he will have had them watched, closely. After all, most folk around Ibrox remember all to vividly the likes of Viktoria Zizkov, FC Kaunas and Grasshoppers Zurich.