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.
Both teams come after wins to nil away from home, but a way bigger challenge awaits in Europe, one that promises hefty rewards, but also threatens CFR’s and Steaua’s consistency in Liga 1, where both clubs are considered the main contenders for the title. If the Bucharest outfit started really well, the reigning champions have dropped points and also lost a number of good players and they’ll be heading into the most demanding part of the season with a tired, damaged team, hoping that the new signings will have enough quality to skip quickly over the period needed to adjust to a whole new environment. But, for now, both sets of fans will be thinking of Braga and Stuttgart and I’m sure that there’s also interest from Portugal and Germany, so here’s a quick look at the state of the two Romanian teams.
One word to describe it: inconsistent. The champions won on Friday away at Dinamo (1-0), but in spite of a solid start, struggled to keep the same pace and focus throughout and went close to conceding in the final minutes. Nothing new, really, look at the two halves from Basel and other league games when the defence fell asleep, with the entire team losing shape and balance. All this using pretty much the same starting eleven, due to the large number of injured players…
Basically, there’s unpredictability as far as the game is concerned, although coach Ioan Andone might try to surprise both Braga – the team’s first opponent from the Champions League’s group stage - and his team’s fans. Most likely, he will be gambling on either Sasa Bjelanovic (Kapetanos had some medical problems during the game vs Dinamo) or Luis Alberto, as only these two of the last additions are in good shape and have also been included on the list registered with UEFA. If Bjelanovic can only take the place of the Greek goalscorer, Luis Alberto will challenge Gabriel Muresan and Nicolas Godmeche for a place in front of the back four, with the Frenchman most likely to drop to the bench, in case Andone wants some fresh blood in midfield, where another substitution could see the talented but inconsistent Rui Pedro take the place of Diogo Valente, who’s yet to impress in CFR’s shirt.
A comfortable away win against newly promoted CSMS Iasi came at the right time, offering a boost of morale without asking for too much effort in exchange. Unfortunately for Laurentiu Reghecampf, who was in Germany to watch Stuttgart’s weekend game, left midfielder Cristian Tanase couldn’t finish the game due to some muscular problems. If the highly rated Romanian international can’t get to full fitness in time, there are two options to replace him: Paul Parvulescu, who also played at left back, can do the winger’s job, allowing Reghecampf to secure the flank, or Alex Chipciu can move on the left and do the exact same job as Tanase, given that he’s also a right footed wide midfielder who likes to cut inside – something he excelled at while playing for Brasov and also earned him the transfer to Steaua. In this case, Adrian Popa would take his place on the right side, adding a lot of pace and some decent skill, but no experience at all in such games. Either way, the Bucharest side, who managed this weekend to claim the first place in Liga 1 after two years, promises to test Stuttgart’s defense with a high paced attacking maneuver that this club had in its DNA, but no other coach had managed to activate it in recent years.
FC Vaslui gave a scare to migthy Inter Milano, in a game the Romanians never expected or deserved to win!
Having to go through the preliminary rounds of both European competitions, most Romanian clubs face between two and four games before making a shameful exit. An entire campaign, they fight like crazy, bending rules and doing everything possible to finish as high as possible in the standings, but when they start playing in Europe, the following season they start complaining about the games that come every three days…
FC Vaslui is yet to win a league title, but is a club that managed to finish every season in a higher position than in the previous one. The lack of European exposure obviously affected their chances to avoid big names this autumn and, after Fenerbahce in the Champions League, things got worse in the Europa League. Inter came to Piatra Neamt and won 2-0 the first leg, a match that Marius Sumudica, Vaslui’s coach wanted to approach using the reserves. An idea that came back to life before last night’s second encounter and Sumudica rested even the excellent goalkeeper, Dani Coman, alongside a number of regular starters, handing debuts to several players against a team lead by the incredible Javier Zanetti, packed with stars, in spite of a 2 goal advantage from the first leg.
Vaslui lead 1-0 and 2-1, playing almost an hour with a one man advantage, but failed to deliver the biggest surprise of the play-off. The game ended with a draw that punished what I consider lack of respect towards the competition and the opposition, but, above all, an amateurish approach that I’ve initially linked with Sumudica. Listening to the team’s manager Daniel Stanciu and the club owner Adrian Porumboiu afterwards, I realized that the coach had their backing to field a weak team against Inter and give up the fight before it began. And all that because three days from now, the title contender FC Vaslui will play away versus newly promoted club, Viitorul Constanta… Pathetic!
The Romanian champions won 1-0 versus Slovan Liberec a week ago and has the freedom to choose a strategy for tonight’s second leg. A goal scored would probably discourage the Czechs, but it seems that Ioan Andone will try to play it safe, keeping things tight at the back and hoping for a lucky strike on a counter. With Ciprian Deac injured, an attacking winger will make room for a more defensive minded player on the left side, while Modou Sogou is expected to make a step back from the front line and leave there only Greek centre-forward Pantelis Kapetanos. With Sogou and Rafael Bastos (scored a brace during the weekend) in support of Kapetanos, CFR will need a lot of luck to surprise the hosts from open play, who should be very careful on set-plays, though.
Coming back with a draw and a goal scored in Istanbul looked like a win for FC Vaslui, but everyone’s cautious before tonight’s match. Last season’s runners-up lost 0-3 during the weekend on CFR’s ground and, although the scoreline was harsh, it should have affected the team’s morale. Hopefully, the effect will be positive and the players will start the second battle versus Fenerbahce with modesty and determination, willing to give it all just to come a step closer to the Champions League’s group stage.
Fenerbahce received 1.000 tickets in the 15.000 seats stadium from Piatra Neamt, where Vaslui has an incredible record in Europe: 6 wins and 5 draws in the 11 matches played there. The atmosphere should be hot, but nowhere near what happened a week ago, when the team responded in great fashion and Liviu Antal’s goal almost silenced the crowd. Tempted to go for a 0-0, Marius Sumudica, the coach, admitted that this could be a suicidal approach and I have to agree: the new back four needs more time to gel, the team lacks proper balance and Vaslui’s main strength was always the attack. With Antal on the right, the excellent Lucian Sanmartean on the left and Nicu Stanciu, probably the brightest talent in Liga I at the moment, behind an experienced striker like Marius Niculae, Vaslui can hurt any team, but would that be enough tonight, if the defense fails to keep it together?
Tonight, last season’s champions and runners-up will enter a competition with an incredible financial stake considering their yearly budget and both CFR and FC Vaslui will give it all to reach the group stage of the Champions League. Unfortunately, a tough task awaits, with two preliminary rounds against tough opposition in front of them and a difficult first set of teams to knock-out.
With two draws in the first two rounds of the season, CFR Cluj will face tonight Slovan Liberec, a team I saw quite a few times last season and relies on a solid, experienced back-bone, losing this summer one important piece of the puzzle: the enthusiastic right-back Theodor Gebre Selassie. Latest news from the opposition’s camp should be encouraging for the hosts, as Slovan will miss Nezmar and Rabusic, key players in defense and attack. CFR’s main weakness is at the back and coach Ioan Andone admits that “there are issues there that need to be addressed, but it’s good to see that the players are aware of this and refuse to celebrate properly even when they score a goal”. Andone fears Slovan’s striking force and highlights the Czechs’ scoring record from the previous season and he announced that in the first leg the main goal is to avoid conceding at home. CFR’s main strength is the ability of Greek striker Pantelis Kapetanos to find a decisive strike out of the blue. He did it twice in Liga I so far and will be at the end of most of the Romanians’ attacking moves tonight.
You can read more on CFR Cluj here.
FC Vaslui has a more difficult task than the champions, having to make its’ debut on Fenerbahce’s stadium, in a very hostile environment and against a strong and ambitious squad. Coach Marius Sumudica looks set to use his team’s main strength, the attack, in the away game, hoping that the goal(s) scored will make the difference after 180 minutes. “We are not in Istanbul to defend, we want to score!”, warned Sumudica, who started the season well, with a win and a draw, scoring 5 goals in the process. The team lost its’ star, Wesley (the Brazilian would have missed the first leg anyway through suspension), but has added some quality players to the team, having experience at both ends, thanks to goalkeeper Dani Coman and striker Marius Niculae. Vaslui’s main weakness is the lack of cohesion within a squad that has a lot of new faces in the ideal starting eleven, but will be encouraged by the first displays of the newcomers, as well as the input of Lucian Sanmartean, who stepped up immediately after Wesley’s departure and looks in great physical shape, orchestrating most of the attacks and causing panic with his excellent runs down the left flank.
You can read more on FC Vaslui here.