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Astra and Petrolul went all-in. Can Steaua defend the title?

February 13, 2014 2 comments

Steaua lost their captain, Petrolul signed Mutu, Astra gets Romanian backup from Serie A – all eyes have been on the front three this winter and there’s enough excitement as the restart of the league nears. With two games in hand to be played in February, Steaua will probably rearrange order at the top before the former rivals from Ploiesti get to play their first official matches, but it should only make things more exciting. So here’s a look at the good and bad moves from this season’s title contenders:

Steaua
Important players in: Claudiu Keseru (Bastia), Lucian Sanmartean (FC Vaslui)
Important players out: Alexandru Bourceanu (Trabzonspor)

Bourceanu leaves a hole in Steaua's midfield.

Bourceanu leaves a hole in Steaua’s midfield.

With two games in hand, which will be played before the restart of the league, Steaua not only has the chance to get back on top of the standings, but also to be the first to get used to official matches. It will surely come handy, as the Bucharest side had a terrible pre-season, as far as results are concerned.

With just one important loss, the captain Bourceanu, sold for a handsome 1.4 million euro fee, difficult to obtain for a player running out of contract, Steaua only hopes to regain the fitness level and enthusiasm that impressed the most in Reghecampf’s regime, as the winning team is still there: a reliable keeper, a solid back four, the intelligent Pintilii, the number of offensive choices to rotate in search of the best output…

Signed from Bastia, Keseru should add competition and quality upfront, in spite of the media’s haste of labelling him as a flop based on his pre-season performances, ignorring the fact that very few players actually impressed for Steaua during their two training camps on Spanish soil. The late signing of veteran winger Lucian Sanmartean is though a sign of fear, but, at the same time, Steaua’s fear should be a concern for their title rivals, who could have done with a more relaxed reigning champion…

Can go well if… Steaua was just a machinery running out of gas.
Can go bad if… The motivation isn’t just the same. Too many regular starters will be thinking about the summer mercato. The defense will be left only with the protection of Pintilii, as Reghecampf has enough reasons to replace the departed pitbull with a more offensive midfielder.

Astra Giurgiu
Important players in: Paul Papp (Chievo), Denis Alibec (Inter/Bologna), Laurentiu Iorga (Otelul Galati), Stefan Popescu (Ajaccio)
Important players out: -

Not rated among the contenders at the beginning of the season, Astra managed to gain a lot of points and respect during the first half of season. The wealthy owner and an old fox in charge of the club have made up for the coach’s lack of experience with a winning team, which can still come to work against the club as the finish line will get closer and the pressure will reach levels never touched before by Daniel Isaila and most of his players.

Still, Astra’s winter mercato has been solid, with two Romanian players with a point to prove brought back from Serie A clubs and all the key players kept on the roster without problems. The squad looks stronger, is hungry for success and looks surprisingly relaxed. With no pressure from the fans or the media, the club recently moved from Ploiesti to Giurgiu, already played Steaua twice, failing to defeat the champions, but their strength has always been to crush smaller opponents

Can go well if… The chance to go all the way will keep on inspiring the team & won’t instill fear. The inexperienced Daniel Isaila has that special something to take up such a challenge and see it through. Budescu will create play and score goals at the same rate as in the 1st half of season.
Can go bad if… The owner won’t be able to control his level of interference.

Petrolul Ploiesti
Important players in: Adrian Mutu (Ajaccio), Ianis Zicu (Gangwon), Gerson Ferreira (Ferencvaros), Toto Tamuz (Ural)
Important players out: Hamza Younes, Alexandru Benga, Ferebory Dore (all to Botev Plovdiv), Damien Boudjemaa (Slavia Prague)

Leadership and goals, that's what Petrolul expects from Mutu.

Leadership and goals, that’s what Petrolul expects from Mutu.

Mutu’s arrival was the winter mercato’s big and unexpected hit. Image, mood, perspective – all changed for Petrolul, but things are not as bright after one month, with the financial support of the Local Council currently on hold, some interest from abroad in Cosmin Contra’s work and an intense transfer activity that can work both ways… Petrolul might have signed one/two (falling) stars, but was forced to sell a proven goalscorer like Younes and no less than 3 other players who, for bad or worse, did play an important part in the team’s excellent 2013.

With fantastic support and a winning aura at home, Petrolul will have to do better on the road and start turning more draws into wins. The extra class in their attacking midfield might help out, but will the defense be able to hold on?

Can go well if… Mutu and Zicu will be in the mood to show their class. The away form will improve. The attack will compensate for the defensive fragility and lack of backup.
Can go bad if… Financial problems will surface right away and the ownership won’t be able to hide them well enough until the summer. The lack of a balanced squad (poor backup un the flanks, average quality in central defense, no proven goalscorer available for the lone striker position) will be exposed.

No country for young men

July 10, 2013 Leave a comment

Romania’s national team might be a joke, but you won’t feel like laughing if you look at those coming from behind, currently playing for the youth national teams. You just realize that it’s going to be a long time before you’ll see once again Romania playing at a decent level. Recently, the U16 coach, Adrian Bumbescu, has been sacked for some terrible results, including a 1-10 defeat to the hands feet of the mighty Germans, and similar heads could continue to fall, but that won’t solve the main problem: the national team coaches (we could have better ones than those selected on dodgy criteria) get their players from the (not so) professional league and clubs. And those do little to nothing when it comes to nurturing and promoting young talent…

Because the sport newspapers are busy reporting Becali’s life behind bars and the drinking adventures of Gabi Tamas, I have to do that little bit of extra work to give you an idea about this. With the season over, I have looked at every Liga 1 club that had either very little or absolutely nothing to fight for in the last few rounds and this is an overview of the U20 players (would have had very little to write, if I had restricted the research to the U18 category) promoted and used in the final part of the campaign. Beware, the results are frightening…

  • FC Vaslui
    Final position: 5th

1. Alexandru Buziuc – born 1994, played 2 games as a substitute, for a total of 43 minutes spent on the pitch.
2. Adrian Nenita – born 1996, was offered a debut in the last round. Played 2 (two) minutes.

  • Dinamo
    Final position: 6th

1. Alin Roman – born 1994, played 1 game. To be more accurate, played 17 minutes.
2. Dorin Rotariu – born 1995, played 7 games, but was a starter just once. In the other 6 games, was on the pitch for less than 20 minutes. Without any logic, he wasn’t used at all in the last 3 rounds…
3. Andrei Radu – born 1996, was offered a debut in round 32 and stayed just under 30 minuted on the pitch.

  • FC Brasov
    Final position: 7th

1. Florin Dumbrava – born 1995, was handed a debut in round 33 and played 14 minutes.
2. Rares Enceanu – born 1994. Made his debut in the top flight two seasons ago. In this one, played 4 times as a substitute, each time less than 30 minutes. Was among the starters only once and he scored 2 goals in that game. Obviously, in the following round, he was just a substitute again (we don’t want him to get too confident!) and played just 12 minutes…

  • CFR Cluj
    Final position: 8th

The former champion club and finalist in the last edition of the Romanian Cup didn’t use a single U20 player last season.

  • Rapid Bucharest
    Final position: 9th

1. Nicolae Vasile – born 1995, played 90 minutes 11 times this season.
2.Alexandru Ionita – born 1994, played 11 matches and was among the starters 5 times.

The use of these players came mostly as a consequence of Rapid’s bankrupcy and the reality that the team will be relegated at the end of the season, with no money or first team players…

  • Gaz Metan Medias
    Final position: 10th

Not a single U20 player used in the final part of the previous season.

  • Otelul's Tudorie might have impressed AC Milan, but convince his club he's talented enough seems a bit more difficult.

    Otelul’s Tudorie might have impressed AC Milan, but convince his club he’s talented enough seems more difficult.

    Otelul Galati
    Final position: 11th

1. Alexandru Tudorie – born 1996, played 32 + 12 minutes in the last two rounds. You do the maths, keeping in mind that this one is considered the hottest prospect of his generation.

  • Universitatea Cluj
    Final position: 12th

Champions of the U17 championship in the summer of 2012, Universitatea didn’t field a single U20 player in this second part of the season, although the club has the same fate as Rapid.

As you can see, I have not included here the clubs that fought for a place in Europe and those who battled against relegation. I went for clubs that had nothing left to fight as the end of the previous season approached, yet they simply avoided to hand debuts and offer playing minutes in Liga 1 to their most promising youngsters. These guys, some of them quite talented, have no other option than to play in the (terrible) youth league until they turn 19, afterwards, their only chance is to convince a coach that they’re ready to play senior football. So few of them make this step not only because most of the averafe quality of the majority, but because of a terrible mentality installed in football clubs, fueled by very poor coaches, who prefer the mistakes of mediocre older (foreign) players over those made by kids who “lack experience”. The youngsters have only one chance to change this: fake their ID’s like most of the African players, but in a different way: try to look a bit older!

Better late than on time

June 27, 2013 Leave a comment

If teams like Steaua or CFR do their best in Europe to make the Romanian league more credible and attractive for those reluctant to look this way, those who run the game always find a way to destroy all these efforts. In a grim period, with important clubs and cities forced to abandon the top flight mainly for financial reasons, the main topic is how Liga 1 will look next term. We had four teams relegated, while two others, Rapid and Universitatea Cluj, failed to get the license. It might like we’re down to 16 from 18, but it’s not that simple, not in this part of the world.

Sandu (left) and Dragomir (right) are in no rush. They surely aren't going anywhere...

Sandu (left) and Dragomir (right) are in no rush. They surely aren’t going anywhere…

Universitatea made an appeal in Lausanne and might overturn the decision, avoiding relegation, becoming the 17th eligible club. So, two scenarios are on the table: reducing the league to 16 teams, in case Cluj won’t make it, or finding a way to keep the current format. Of course, time doesn’t seem an ally at this point, with less than a month before the kick-off of the new season, but a recent gathering of those running the so called Professional League (LPF) and the Romanian Federation (FRF) stated the contrary. The leaders of the two organizations ended up arguing and came to no conclusion at the meeting held earlier this month. Instead of organizing the league, they ended up re-scheduling the whole thing. The date: 6th of July. To be more precise: two weeks before the first official matches of the new season. It’s not too late, as you might think. Here’s the president of the Federation, Mircea Sandu: “There’s plenty of time. I advise all the clubs in doubt about the league they’ll be playing next season to be prepared for everything.” Indeed, they should: one or two of the four relegated clubs could be granted the right to stay in Liga 1. If there’ll be need for just one, a playout could take place. Again, don’t worry about the lack of time, there’s plenty: “We could even arrange it on the 20th, when the league starts”. Yes, that was still Sandu, also known as The Godfather, making another small joke. Put all those together and you’ll have the picture of what has become Romanian footie under his and Dragomir’s (nicknamed Corleone) reign: one big, bad joke…

Steaua’s 24th title: never in doubt, now a certainty

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.

rusescuThe team

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.

The coach

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.

reghe mmThe staff

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…

The future

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…

Second-placed Astra sacks the coach. At least this time it wasn’t during a live tv show…

April 10, 2013 Leave a comment
Ioan Niculae (left) and Dinu Gheorghe could set a record with the number of coaches changed during one season.

Ioan Niculae (left) and Dinu Gheorghe could set a record with the number of coaches changed during one season.

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

Round 22 – results, standings and highlights

March 13, 2013 Leave a comment

liga1

Round 21 – results, highlights and standings

March 5, 2013 Leave a comment

Liga I standings

Round 20 – results, highlights and standings

February 27, 2013 Leave a comment

L1

Can anybody take the title away from Steaua?

February 22, 2013 Leave a comment

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.

CFR Cluj went by plane to Milano, with the clear intention to park the bus…

February 13, 2013 Leave a comment

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.

Hard to replace. Bastos (left) and Sougou (right) are gone, while Kapetanos (centre) has slim chances to start vs Inter...

Hard to replace. Bastos (left) and Sougou (right) are gone, while Kapetanos (centre) has slim chances to start vs Inter…

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

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