Five rounds before the end of the season and during the weekend that most of Romania celebrates Easter – obviously, a sign from God for Gigi Becali – Steaua is crowned champion once again, after a very long wait, a period which exposed all the faults of Becali’s dictatorial regime. Nothing radical changed in his hands-on and loud approach, it was just one of those years when everything fell into place.
Steaua’s spine became finally strong enough. From the keeper Tatarusanu, through the complementary pair of defenders, Szukala (great in the air) – Chiriches (excellent on the ground), the warrior-captain Bourceanu and to the free scoring Rusescu, finding the ideal eleven was always easy for Laurentiu Reghecampf. Nevermind the problems at right back, the poor form of Tanase or the struggle to identify a reliable centre-forward, with Latovlevici’s energy from left back, Pintilii’s discipline in central midfield and Chipciu’s quick runs from the second line of attack, there was always too much quality for a mediocre competition like Liga 1. And for those who doubted and argued, biased or not, Steaua delivered in Europe beyond expectations.
I remember one of Reghecampf’s first games as a coach, as he came to Ploiesti with FC Snagov for a match in the 2nd division. Someone else was officially in charge of the team, but everyone knew that Steaua’s and the national team’s former right back was running things. So, at the end of the game, when he gathered around all the players on the pitch and sent them for a few laps, he was the one who had to deal with the irony of the few fans that stayed behind. “You should have made them run before the final whistle!”, they shouted, but the young coach didn’t answer then. He did it in the following years, helping Concordia Chiajna pull out a miracle and avoid relegation in the second half of the previous season, but also during his first campaign in charge of Romania’s best supported club. Because his players do run. And, if this can be assigned to his German fitness coach, nobody can deny that the team is well organized, moves the ball quickly, knows how to react when cornered and can interpret different tactics and scenarios because of him. Besides that, he won quickly the affection of fans and players and, even more important, had the needed diplomacy to deal with Becali’s changing mood and hands-on approach.
He might be hugely unpopular among the fans of every other team in the country, but a lot of them would secretly want someone like Steaua’s Mihai Stoica in their club. His return to the Bucharest club – although he once said that he’d rather live on the streets, like a bum, than work again with Gigi Becali – has ensured the following: the team and the coach had protection from the owner’s often brutal intrusions, as well as the attacks coming from the opposition and some of the journos. “Becali’s little brother” has seen the job done and his presence has surely influenced the club’s performance and results this season, for which he was ready to go all the way. At times, way beyond the boundaries of respect, fair play, common sense. Outrageous for the rival fans and neutral spectators, admirable for Steaua’s supporters, MM’s behavior spearheaded and eventually won the psychological battle that goes on during a season…
Speaking of arrogance and offensive behavior, the club was quick to announce years of domination in Romanian football, but, for the good of the game, the level of the league will somehow manage to rise again at a decent level. This season, it was all too easy, with Dinamo and Rapid tormented by changes and financial struggle, CFR Cluj focused only on Europe and mediocre in Liga 1 and Vaslui without direction and the usual ambition from their wealthy owner. Plus, there’s a huge amount of uncertainty at the moment for the new champions: Becali’s yet to decide if it’s wise to cash in on some names or really go for it in the Champions League; Reghecampf has impressed and wants to play hard ball with Becali, having offers from abroad on stand-by; a number of key players (Tatarusanu, Chiriches, Latovlevici, Bourceanu, Rusescu) are on the shortlist of better clubs for some time now; the recent appointment of Daniel Stanciu in the club has fueled the not so silent war going on when it comes to selling and buying new players.
This final point could be the cause for more harm to Steaua than any other Romanian club could produce next season, but at the same time this state of alert, the constant tension can lead to good things. Keeping in mind that everyone involved in it keeps the club’s best interest above their own. Which, to be honest, rarely happens, and not only in football…
Ioan Niculae, the wealthy owner of Astra Giurgiu, has struck again. After getting rid of Bogdan Stelea without elegance and professionalism, Niculae decided to cut the wings of someone who has been near the club for the last two decades, who had stepped in at a difficult time last year and had proved himself up for the job. Two defeats in a row this year counted more than the second place Astra still sits in, with a two points advantage over the former local rival from Ploiesti, Petrolul, and Valentin Sinescu must leave.
Sinescu, a veteran assistant coach, with an elegant, fancy speech, often too complicated for both players and even journalists, was earning around 2.000 euros per month after taking charge of the first team towards the end of October 2012 and was promised to stay at least until the end of the season “because he was loyal. He’s been with us for 20 years, didn’t ran away like others!”. The words came out of Niculae’s mouth not long ago, when Astra was reaching the 2nd spot, a record for the small club that still has a big chance of making into Europe. I, for one, doubt it will happen under the command of a mediocre Marin Barbu, the guy assigned Technical Director in December and now named in place of Sinescu, Astra’s fourth coach in the current campaign…
- Gaz Metan Medias – Viitorul Constanta 4-1 (Bawab 4, 91, Llullaku 18, 31 / Chitu 39)
- CSMS Iasi – CFR Cluj 1-1 (Milea 56 / Rada 69)
- Astra Giurgiu – FC Brasov 3-0 (Budescu 20, Seto 40, Fatai 61)
- Rapid – Petrolul Ploiesti 0-0
- Otelul Galati – Pandurii Targu Jiu 1-0 (Iorga 87 pen)
- Ceahlaul – Steaua 3-4 (Gheorghiu 8, Golubovic 35 pen, Constantinescu 91 / Bourceanu 3, Rocha 10, Pintilii 12, Leandro Tatu 60)
- U Cluj – CS Severin 1-0 (Buleica 65)
- Dinamo – Concordia Chiajna 2-0 (Axente 86, Matei 94)
- FC Vaslui – Gloria Bistrita 1-1 (Sanmartean 95 pen / Bucur 2)
- Gloria Bistrita – Ceahlaul Piatra Neamt 0-0
- Steaua Bucharest – Gaz Metan Medias 3-0 (Nikolic 33, Pintilii 72, 88 pen)
- Viitorul Constanta – Universitatea Cluj 1-1 (Chitu 64 / V. Dinu 49 pen)
- CFR Cluj – Otelul Galati 0-1 (Paraschiv 7)
- Petrolul Ploiesti – CSMS Iasi 2-1 (Hoban 62, Grozav 80 / Patulea 54)
- Rapid – Dinamo 0-1 (Danciulescu 65)
- FC Brasov – Concordia Chiajna 3-2 (Buga 59, Oltean 63, Batin 86 / Belu 48, Popovici 90)
- Pandurii – FC Vaslui 2-1 (Matulevicius 56, 79 / Jumisse 61)
- FC Severin – Astra Giurgiu 0-0
- Gaz Metan Medias – Gloria Bistrita 3-1 (Llullaku 31, Bawab 45, 60 pen / Antonache 34)
- Concordia Chiajna – CS Severin 1-1 (Ispir 18 pen / Fl. Costea 58 pen)
- Ceahlaul Piatra Neamt – Pandurii 0-1 (Matulevicius 28)
- CSMS Iasi – Rapid 0-1 (Cretu 4 og)
- Otelul Galati – Petrolul Ploiesti 0-1 (Bokila 80)
- Dinamo – FC Brasov 2-1 (Alexe 18, 33 pen / Paun 60)
- Astra Giurgiu – Viitorul Constanta 2-0 (Budescu 28, Fatai 71)
- U Cluj – Steaua 0-1 (Rusescu 34)
- FC Vaslui – CFR Cluj 0-0
Liga I resumes today, after another long break, but earlier than it was decided, in typical Romanian fashion. Another week might have helped some coaches that changed sides and might have allowed some new faces blend in better, although nothing really prepares you for the realities of our football…
A look at the standings shows there’s little movement to expect upfront, where Steaua feels little to no threat from a chasing pack that’s missing two traditional rivals, Dinamo and Rapid, both paying now (and in the next few years) for the poor management that has now come not only to affect their results, but even to threaten their survival.
5. CFR Cluj
A new record of points for Romanian football in the Champions League’s group stage created the perfect opportunity to cash in on some shrewd investments in foreign players. It was not nice to see CFR give up the fight with Inter in the Europa League and with Steaua in Liga I, but it was realistic and in perfect agreement with the club’s long term business plan, the same that made the Cluj side such an important name in Romanian football, in the last decade.
Rafael Bastos and Modou Sougou left for important transfer fees and the board was not desperate to spend, gambling again on unknown names from abroad, with Robert Maah looking so far good enough to step in and command a place in Paulo Sergio’s first eleven. The Portuguese coach was criticized for the number of defenders used against Inter, but I liked that he worked on a plan, adjusted to the type of players available and his ability will be put to the test until the end of the season, when a place in Europe is a must. Either through the league or the Romanian Cup.
4. Pandurii Tg Jiu
Probably the most entertaining team of the autumn season suffered two big losses: the top coach that’s Petre Grigoras (signed for Otelul Galati) and a top talent like Alexandru Maxim (transferred to VfB Stuttgart).
Ok, we are talking about a club free of financial trouble, who signed a good coach like Cristi Pustai, but I think Pandurii will settle for a European spot, if they can resist the temptation to give up easy points to some clubs in need… Two good moves on the market, with the midfield pair Anton-Predescu moving for almost nothing from the cash-strapped Gloria Bistrita.
3. FC Vaslui
Once aggressive on the market and very ambitious in the league, the club that always managed to finish on a higher position than in the previous year won’t be able to respect the tradition. Vaslui made no significant move in terms of transfers and decided to part ways with top goalie Daniel Coman, probably in an attempt to cut down the wage bill, losing at the same time a leader and a consistent performer. Not the kind of move a title contender does, but it seems that Adrian Porumboiu wasn’t bluffing again, when he stated he’ll try to distance himself from the club…
2. Astra Giurgiu
A wealthy, ambitious, and obviously controversial owner like Ioan Niculae has decided to give it a go this season, taking advantage of the poor season of the usual contenders for the European spots. All the good players stayed and the team is still ran by the caretaker and long serving coach Valentin Sinescu, but he should worry now that with the matches the dangerous TV sports shows will also resume.
10 points behind Steaua, Astra will probably be more concerned looking over the shoulder, as CFR and Vaslui still look stronger, at least on paper, and would definitely enjoy finishing second.
4 and a half years ago, the Romanian champions stunned the world with a 2-1 win on the Olimpico, against AS Roma, in the Champions League. This season, CFR Cluj collected a record (by Romanian standards) 10 points in a group won by Manchester United, but failed to go through. Relegated to the Europa League, the team will meet Inter Milano and will have to produce something special on Thursday evening. A win, like 4 and a half years ago, seems highly unlikely though, with a draw or a narrow defeat looking like the results Paulo Sergio has prepared for in the last month.
From the starting eleven that won against Roma only team captain Ricardo Cadu and defensive midfielder Gabriel Muresan will probably feature among the starters and the Portuguese coach worked on much more than just finding the right replacements for Modou Sougou and Rafael Bastos, the top players sold in January to Olympique Marseille and Al-Nasr, respectively. There’s been intensive work in switching to a defense of five men, with Felice Piccolo operating behind Cadu and Rada, who will be also protected from the front by a hard working, defensive midfield duo formed by Muresan and Nicolas Godmeche. Attacking threats? Maybe Rui Pedro, the 24 years old who scored a hat-trick against Braga playing off the main striker, but now he’ll be the most advanced player on the pitch, a role he’ll probably struggle to cover…
So, five defenders, two defensive midfielders and no natural striker – this is CFR’s plan to return from Milano with a decent result, one that drew criticism even from the team’s former coach, Sorin Cartu, nicknamed “Sorinaccio” for his love of ultra-defensive approaches… At least on paper, Paulo Sergio seems to have gone a step to far or too deep, to be more accurate, as the team that had the worst passing completion (52%) and ball possession (35%) in the Champions League’s group stage and has lost the two players that did some damage on counters faces Inter with the back against the wall. A wall that’s called Mario Felgueiras, the 26 years old that saved 61 shots against Man United, Galatasaray and Sporting Braga, the highest number recorded in the Champions League so far…
It was all perfect back in 2012! Steaua dominated the league, a reminder of the good old days, and qualified for another European spring, having the
arrogance guts to take Ajax lightly and speak of the possible double with Chelsea in the Europa League. As January passed by without anything spectacular happening, other than the usual game of asking unrealistic prices for players like Chiriches, Tanase or Rusescu, things got hotter as the Amsterdam trip came into sight.
A huge betting scandal involving Laurentiu Reghecampf kept the media busy, as the young coach was placed at the heart of a possible fixed game that took place in the 1.Bundesliga, when he was playing for Energie Cottbus. It proved big enough to make the Bucharest side react “in style”, shutting down all access during the team’s second training camp.
As things weren’t bad enough, Steaua’s owner scored a hat-trick of legal issues in the past few days, as his name featured in three cases and at least one of them did some damage, as Becali received a 3-year sentence with conditional suspension of execution for trying to make justice for himself by forcefully retaining the people that had tried to steal his car.
All these issues seriously damaged Steaua’s image and it might have also affected the team’s morale and focus ahead of the first official match of the year. If they also diverted the attention from the on-the-pitch problems that Reghecampf had to address during this long winter break, the fans optimistic of having a strong chance to go through might have a few surprises on Thursday.
Steaua has defensive problems: at right back there’s a dilemma whether to use new signing Cornel Rapa from the off or still improvise with Alex Chipciu, the quick winger that had to cover the role a few times in the past; Lukasz Szukala, who would have probably started in central defense suffered, a broken nose during a friendly game and he’s out, so the central pair will be formed by Vlad Chiriches and Florin Gardos. Both are young and, judging by the recent unconvincing performances of the highly rated Chiriches, inconsistent. Should I also mention the indifferent form of starting goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu? Or move upfield and remind of the absence of Cristian Tanase – suspended – which has created little debate, but the right footed left midfielder will surely be missed.
Steaua still thinking of a double with Chelsea? At the moment, it seems more likely to happen in autumn, in the Champions League…
Everything’s going great for the Bucharest side: spending the winter break with a 12 points advantage over FC Vaslui, the closest serious title contender, dreaming of a double against Chelsea in the Europa League – stupid mind games played with Ajax, their first and most likely last opponent to meet in Europe, this spring -, and playing around with their top players’ transfer fees, in deals with little chances to go through during the current mercato.
Thanks to a quality roster that once again forms the back-bone of Romania’s national team and a young coach, Laurentiu Reghecampf, that got almost everything right in an excellent 2012, Steaua has every right to feel confident of winning their 24th title and the ultimate goal: playing once again Champions League football. Of course, preliminary rounds await, but UEFA’s prize money seem again in reach and nothing can Gigi Becali happier.
Well, UEFA has also prepared a surprise for the 2013/2014 edition and it’s not a pleasant one for Steaua. The UEFA Youth League, a competition that will offer the 32 clubs qualified for the Champions League group stage the chance to line-up their U19 teams for a European competition, will force the red and blue outfit to think again about investing some money in their youth setup. Becali himself stopped financing properly this vital area of the club some years ago, thinking that he can afford to sign basically every promising Romanian player that might come through. He was right, as Steaua bought indeed most of the hot prospects that proved themselves at smaller clubs in the first division, and the recent transfer of 18 years old Gabriel Iancu – the first important name to come out of Gheorghe Hagi’s Academy – underlines Becali’s financial strength, at least by Romanian standards.
In fact, it’s the man’s problem if he wants to spend more on players raised by others rather than investing less money and developing talent at his own club, but now Steaua could be in a difficult spot, as the club’s image will be at stake in the UEFA Youth League too, not just the Champions League. Not to mention that this competition could also be used to advertise and sale young talent…
I’ve watched Steaua’s U19 and U17 teams recently, outplayed and outscored by arguably the best Romanian club at youth level, Hagi’s Academy. Viitorul Constanta won 7-2 at U19 level and 4-0 at U17 level at the end of September and I felt it made no sense taking notes on more than two players from the visiting team. The teams are a mess and on such short term Steaua has no other option than to sign some talented youngsters in the summer, at least for the U19 squad. In fact, we could see the club change again its’ strategy, but I recall the last massive campaign of signing youngsters. It happened some years ago and Steaua signed a dozen youth internationals in a very short time, hoping to raise them properly in the reserve team and promote them in the top flight. Not a single one made it, with some promising careers destroyed by poor work and lack of interest at that time. A sign that Becali might have the cash, but surely lacks something vital at this level: patience and know-how.
After 3 years of hard work and many more millions invested in a football academy and a football club promoted to the top flight last summer, Gheorghe Hagi is ready to collect his first cheque and it could well be a player that has quite a few things in common with the man once nicknamed Maradona of the Carpathians. He’s a precocious left footed attacking midfielder who doesn’t feel the weight of the number 10 shirt nor the pressure of first division football at a young age, in the team with the youngest average age in the league, and has already netted 6 goals in 16 appearances, at the age of 18.
Tested by Ajax Amsterdam, who already has its expert eyes on the likes of Bogdan Tiru and Cristian Gavra – other two talents from Hagi’s Academy – and scouted also by Galatasaray, who could really sell the story of the King’s heir in Turkey, Iancu is now facing the biggest decision of his young career. In need of cash to continue the development of the Academy, as well as supporting the growing costs of a first division club, Hagi has decided to listen to any offers this winter and Steaua Bucharest was the quickest to table a sum close to what’s expected in exchange of a player that doesn’t pop up very often in this part of the world.
He started just like me, at a young age and in the sound of goals. He’s skilful and has the ability to make quick decisions. By doing so, Iancu looks quick in everything he does, although he’s not the fastest player around.
Gheorghe Hagi on Gabriel Iancu
“Steaua must now discuss personal terms with the player”, admits Hagi, who refuses to say that the race between interested clubs has now ended, but as far as I know, has demanded some guarantees that the youngster will be offered the chance to play for the senior team, so he can continue his impressive development. Hopefully, Steaua will keep its’ word, not only for Iancu’s sake, but also for the club’s image, more famous recently for wasting talent, rather than properly nurturing it…