To say FC Oţelul Galaţi's march to the top of the Romanian table is a shock is almost an understatement. They are dependent on home-grown talent, are one of only four sides in the 18-team Liga I without floodlights, and have one of the division's lowest budgets – so low that captain Gabriel Paraschiv and several team-mates offered to take wage cuts to help the club out in the global recession.
However, through a combination of modesty and prodigious effort, the team led by Romania's most-capped player Dorinel Munteanu have seized the initiative, winning ten of their 15 league games – three more than any other side. Even so, in a move that mirrors FC Unirea Urziceni's surprise 2009 title success, they refuse to discuss the championship.
"Nobody is allowed to speak about the title," reiterated 134-cap former midfielder Munteanu. "There is a long way to go. We have to live for the moment, focus on the next match and get as many points as possible. The key is continuity, stability and hard work. I hope at the end of the season we will be appreciated for what we do."
From the banks of the Danube in eastern Romania, Oţelul – literally 'steel' – have had little recognition in terms of silverware since their foundation in 1964: no league titles and no Romanian Cups. Their best top-flight finish was sixth in 2006/07, while the bulk of their squad have little or no experience of success with other clubs.
Indeed, 15 of Munteanu's players either came through the ranks or joined Oţelul as teenagers, yet that has proved a plus if anything: the 42-year-old former 1. FC Köln and VfL Wolfsburg player has been allowed to mould eager players in his own unpretentious, disciplined and industrious template.
Oţelul do not have stars – only captain Paraschiv and centre-back Sergiu Costin were well-known in Romania before now – but their talents are fast gaining interest. National-team boss Răzvan Lucescu gave defender Cornel Râpă, 20, and left-back cum midfielder Silviu Ilie, 22, first call-ups for this week's friendly against Italy.
With the big Bucharest clubs again failing to convince – third-placed FC Rapid Bucureşti are the highest ranked – Oţelul's acid test comes with Sunday's visit to unbeaten FC Timişoara, who are second. If two recent home draws suggest Oţelul are tiring with the winter break just four games away, Munteanu will doubtless be urging his players to squeeze out that final reserve of energy.
Club president Marius Stan, once a decent league player himself, knows that with success comes pressure. "I am sure at the very least people will pay attention to us," he said. "That is why it will be much harder for us."