Liga 1 restarts today and surviving will be more important than winning
Whenever I was asked about the level of Romanian football, I was pointing out to the 5-6 teams that, theoretically, were fighting for the title, a fact that was setting Liga I apart in Eastern Europe, where 2 or 3 teams usually race for the top spot. Unfortunately, it won’t be the case anymore, as well hidden financial trouble surfaced in several “big” clubs threatening their own existence…
As the new season kicks-off today, with Timisoara hosting Dinamo, in what was a while ago a hugely anticipated game, I will try to go quickly through the changes that took place this summer, to give you an idea of what the league should look like in the new campaign.
Title contenders: Steaua Bucharest, CFR Cluj
- Steaua Bucharest – the incarceration of Gigi Becali was and still is a problem for the reigning champions, who used to rely on Becali’s cash injections every once in a while, to keep things running smoothly. It won’t be the case anymore, so it all depends now on a) entering the group stages of the Champions League or b) selling the top players. After Raul Rusescu’s departure to FC Seville, Steaua decided to give it a go in Europe, putting on hold the otherwise imminent departures of players like Tatarusanu, Chiriches, Latovlevici, Chipciu or Bourceanu, all demanded abroad. If plan A succeeds, it is difficult to see this team challenged in Liga I, having every chance to defend the title won in style last year.
- CFR Cluj – probably the only other club ambitious enough, financially ready and well equipped to mount a title challenge. It will be tough, anyway, as CFR went yet again through massive changes especially in terms of personnel. Lots of players were simply released on a free transfer, with only Ivo Pinto and Bakary Sare sold for handsome fees to Dinamo Zagreb, and the new coach, Mircea Rednic, supervised the arrival of no less than 12 new faces… and counting. Although there’s quality in the staff, on the bench and within the team, it will take time to create a team, but CFR’s chances could be boosted by Steaua’s (logical) gamble of trying to focus on a European adventure in the first part of the season.
Teams fighting for a place in Europe: Vaslui, Astra, Petrolul, Dinamo
- FC Vaslui – in its’ short history, Vaslui had created a nice habit of always finishing the league on a higher position than in the previous season, but the wealthy owner Adrian Porumboiu decided it takes too much time, money and nerves to always unsettle the hierarchy and took a step back. This is why I am downgrading the yellow and green outfit this season, in spite of keeping the team at a competitive level, with some good free agents signed from abroad, to compensate the departure of Coman, N’Doye and Milanov, all regular starters last season.
- Astra – qualified for the first time in Europe last season, Astra kept basically the same team (can still sign one or two interesting names) and will probably experience less financial trouble than others. I don’t trust their coach, but I guess this goes for the owner as well, who has the bad habit of changing things at least 2-3 times per campaign. If he nails a good one and sticks with him, he has every chance of repeating last season’s feat.
- Petrolul – unfortunately, the club that benefits from the fantastic support of a passionate fan base failed to capitalize on a good season. The Romanian Cup winners didn’t work very well during the summer and the squad looks seriously weakened, so I doubt they can aim higher. It will be hard to win against them on “Ilie Oana”, but the 12th player, no matter how good he is, can’t enter the pitch and do the work of the first 11.
- Dinamo – Massive changes took place at the Bucharest club, but at least the Red Dogs reacted quicker than Rapid and balanced the club’s budget in time. Good players like Nica and Alexe left, but that’s the way to keep alive a club with little income and the experienced coach Gigi Multescu seems the right man to mix the old players with some new faces that could help the team this season and become transfer targets within a year or two.
Mid-table teams: Pandurii, Gaz Metan, Ceahlaul, Rapid, Otelul
- Once at least a team fighting for a place in Europe if not for the title, Rapid barely avoided the drop and will mix a lot of youngsters with the few experienced players that refused to abandond the derailed train will probably aim for a safe season, which will also be a test for the club’s much awaited new ownership. Financially safe, Pandurii and Gaz Metan should have no relegation worries, although the beautiful team from Targu Jiu created by Petre Grigoras is now history, with the coach and the best players allowed to leave in the last few months. Ceahlaul added some experience with the likes of Emil Jula and Gabriel Canu and will be an interesting first coaching experience in Romania for Vasile Miriuta, while Otelul‘s worries depend mostly on the club’s financial state.
Teams fighting to avoid the drop: FC Brasov, Universitatea Cluj, Viitorul Constanta and the four promoted clubs, Sageata Navodari, Corona Brasov, Poli Timisoara and FC Botosani.