We are two goals away from the Brazilian World Cup. And we’re playing at home, pushed by 55.000 souls. It doesn’t look that bad, really, yet there’s an overwhelming feeling that everything was lost in Athens and we’re only waiting for a painfully long confirmation, in Bucharest, on a cold Tuesday night that has so little to do with what awaits the winner in Rio, in the summer of 2014. I’ve not jumped ships, I have been pessimistic about Romania’s chances all along, but in Romanian. Now it’s time to be in English as well, so here are a few thoughts on why this now or never game has so little chances to finish with a dream result.
selection and match strategy, unaware that the key absences (Tatarusanu, Chiriches, Pintilii) weaken precisely the defense he decided to put so much emphasis on once again, unable to react to the opposition’s tactics of outnumbering our central midfielders with the use of both wide forwards and opening up highways on both flanks for the advancing fullbacks, the coach was left to blame poor marking at set plays and a first goals scored from an offside position.
Now, he gets a hand with his team selection, as Tatarusanu and a masked Chiriches are back, but the loss of two central midfielders (Bourceanu and Lazar) will pose new questions to his ability to select a winning 11. On the other hand, he faces again the type of game he hates and never propery prepared his team for: the one that he’s supposed to win by opening up the opposition’s defense.
There’s an obvious lack of quality as far as players are concerned, I’ve said it before, we don’t really deserve to go to Brazil with this lot, but there’s the feeling that blame rests on the Piturca’s shoulders once again, both with the lot he assembles every time and with the choices he makes when it comes to picking the starting eleven.
Let’s start with Athens.
He picked Lobont in goal ahead of Pantilimon (according to his selection, the Manchester City shot stopper is Romania’s fourth option, although he recently got the nod – albeit temporarily – ahead of England’s number 1). The veteran from AS Roma, with no official games under his belt, no hunger and little authority, failed to make up for the team’s defensive errors and can only get praise for stopping Greece from netting the fourth goal.
In central midfield, he paired Bourceanu with Cocis, not Lazar, losing chemistry and technical ability, mocking an entire country with his choice and shocking Cocis himself, who stated afterwards that he never expected to start this game.
Upfront, behind Marica, he used Torje on the right, who was a regular starter in this campaign, but lost touch with regular football at club level, picked Stancu ahead of Maxim and, as usual, started with Tanase on the left. Picking Stancu ahead of Maxim, who’s one of the most in-form players at club level and has been a hit in the Bundesliga since he joined Stuttgart, is the main criticism Piturca faced during and after the match. I think that’s not the best approach to the matter, and not just because Stancu scored the away goal that still has a (slim) chance to make the difference. He does fit the game strategy Piturca picked for this game, he has a good fitness and form level, has not played that bad recently for the national team. Actually, Stancu deserved to start, so I would say that the best line of criticism is this: leaving Maxim out was a mistake, as he can just as well play on either flanks, where both Torje and Tanase have disappointed, both before and during the Athens encounter.
Let’s move to the second leg, where Romania is expected to start with Tatarusanu in goal, a back four of Matel, Goian, Chiriches and Rat, Cocis and Gardos in central midfield, Nicolita, Maxim and Stancu behind Marica.
We get back two players that are vital for our chances to keep a clean sheet, but we are weaker than ever where often a football match is won, as the absence of Bourceanu and Lazar (both suspended) forces Piturca to do a rare thing for him: think outside of the box. The pair Cocis – Gardos is odd to say the least. Gardos has played there years ago, but he’s a central defender. Cocis has played there days ago :), but in truth he’s the type of all round midfielder that can play everywhere, but is yet to find his best role on the pitch. And he’s 30 years old… They never played together either and this pairing puts Piturca on the spot for yet another reason: why did he call up Ovidiu Hoban – who is average and out of form, let’s be honest – if he doesn’t find him up for this game? He is a defensive midfielder, the only available defensive midfielder, yet he’s not Piturca’s third choice, he’s his fifth!
We move further up the pitch and finally find Maxim among the expected starters, deployed behind Marica, which pushes Stancu wide to the left and pushes Tanase further left, on the bench :). The pressure will be huge for Maxim, whose trickery and cheeky backheel touches have produced nothing but disappointment so far for the national team, on the rare occasions he was give the nod. Yes, let’s be honest and say that Maxim plays better for Stuttgart than for Romania, and let’s stay honest: it happens because Stuttgart tries to play football, while Romania only tries to stop the opposition from playing football. Now, all eyes are on him and Piturca himself showed once again his terrible man management skills, by saying “Maxim will have the chance to prove me wrong in the second led”, a pathetic and useless attempt to divert the blame for not offering his most talented attacking player more than 5 minutes in Athens.
It’s an all or nothing game, with an ideal scenario of scoring twice and keeping a clean sheet. Not an impossible feat, but a highly unlikely one given all the above arguments. Greece has not impressed me – they also got punished from a set play, in spite of a huge aerial advantage -, but I can’t see Romania able to turn things around. Everything looks lined up against us, from tradition to deal with such games, to the quality of the roster, the obvious limits of the coach and the lack of solutions to line up a competitive starting eleven even in perfect conditions, not only now, when so many problems will influence Piturca’s choices. To be honest, in spite of my belief that we don’t deserve to go to Rio, I would be obviously disappointed if we’d miss out on yet another final tournament, but I’m gutted that nothing will change for us while the current coach remains in charge. And, according to his contract, that’s at least until 2016…