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…
In a weekend packed with derbies all over Europe, Liga 1 offers Steaua – CFR Cluj, the battle of the main title contenders and of the only two Romanian clubs that have made it in to the group stage of European competitions.
With four points after two rounds, Steaua has made a bright start in Europa League, even though luck was on the team’s side both in Stuttgart and, more recently, at home against a stubborn and well organized FC Copenhagen. Coach Laurentiu Reghecampf deserves credit though for ignoring the the owner’s call for full focus on the title challenge (and that’s always a suicidal approach…) and so far has done a great job in both competitions, as we are also talking of the current Liga 1 leaders.
CFR on the other hand has three valuable points in the Champions League, after the games versus Sporting Braga and Manchester United, and waits for the double versus Galatasaray that will shape the club’s future in Europe. The problem in Liga 1 is that the reigning champions have lost a lot of players and a lot of points already and a defeat on Sunday night would leave them 12 points off the top spot after only 11 rounds. A huge difference considering the poor opposition Steaua encountered so far in the league! As well as the mediocre displays from the likes of Vaslui, Dinamo and Rapid, Teams that in theory should prevent an early break-away from such a serious title contender.
It will be an interesting encounter between a team that likes to attack in numbers and put a lot of pressure in the opposition’s half and one that has struggles to win midfield battles in Liga 1 so far and dictate play, but is a master of counter-attacking football. A tactics that has suffered a blow as the very quick Moudou Sougou has just been added to a long list of casualties, while Steaua can not only be proud with the excellent fitness levels, but also with a total lack of injured players and a strong competition for a starting place all over the pitch.
The Bucharest side seems to have the edge in what looks like a final for CFR, being fitter, hungrier and more determined than the Cluj side, so we should be in for a rare piece of entertainment, also considering the tens of thousand fans that will be once again behind Reghecampf’s men in the National Arena.
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.
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.
Position last season: 1st place
CFR was one of the least impressive champions in recent years and I would rate the team below the likes of Unirea Urziceni and Otelul Galati, considered huge surprises when they won the league, although they did possess two vital attributes: physical preparation and tactical discipline.
Brought to avoid what looked like a probable poor end of the season, Ioan Andone didn’t manage to take more out of the team than his predecessor, Jorge Costa, the former fierce FC Porto defender. The squad looked old, slow, predictable, lacked style and impressive performers (Greek striker Pantelis Kapetanos would be the exception from the rule), but somehow the most effective team in recent years in terms of winning trophies managed to add another title to its’ ever growing cabinet.
Important transfers out: Beto (goalkeeper, key player), Sixto Peralta (central midfielder, key player)
Beto was in Portugal’s squad for Euro 2012 only as a backup, but he was the only player from Liga I present at the final tournament, and CFR couldn’t extend the loan from Porto for a second season. It’s a blow they’ve covered with another Portuguese goalie, but they’ve lost a player used to be part of a winning team with one that barely avoided relegation with FC Brasov.
Peralta’s another big name and, in spite of the criticism he got sometimes, I still consider him the midfielder with the best vision and intelligence that has been seen in Liga I in recent years. Slow and not too sharp from the physical point of view, the Argentinian was an asset for CFR, who tried to get rid of him – or at least his big salary – in the past too, but realized back then that it would have been a mistake. One that they’ve made now, probably, not just by releasing him, but by failing to add to the roster a central midfielder capable to organize the build-up by looking forward, not backwards or sideways.
Vital game for CFR Cluj tonight, with four rounds to go in the Romanian top flight, as Universitatea, the local arch-rivals await. Fans of the Red Caps burn CFR’s flags on their way to the brand new Cluj Arena, but the goalkeeper of the home team, Mircea Bornescu, will do something worse only 30 minutes after the first whistle. Bornescu lost it and went after CFR’s captain Cadu , who converted a penalty and went behind the goal for a wild celebration. The kick started a fight that forced the ref to send off both players and stop the game for 15 minutes, but Cadu was once again attacked on his way to the dressing room and CFR’s coach Ioan Andone refused to let the players come back on the pitch, asking for the game to be stopped, as he considered the environment too dangerous…
Bornescu’s crazy act will do CFR a great favor and will add to a rivalry that didn’t need another sparkle. Not to mention the controversy added to another title that is now only three steps away from Arpad Paszkany’s club.
CFR’s first defeat in 2012 proved fatal for the former FC Porto defender, who was heading for a first title, but won’t be there to enjoy a win that’s still likely, as the club holds a five point advantage at the top of the standings. Defeated 0-5 at home versus Rapid, Jorge Costa has been released a day later and on Sunday evening, the name of his replacement was already known: Ioan Andone.
“It’s the perfect choice!”, says the media and, although it does feel very wrong for the Portuguese coach who is packing his bags, it looks right for the guy who’s stepping in with nine rounds left to play in Liga I. Andone is the coach that helped CFR win its’ first title back in 2008 (made the double, actually, that year!), but was sacked six rounds into the following season, due to a poor start in the league! The coach lost the chance to guide the team into the group stage of the Champions League, where the Romanian champions went on to meet Chelsea and Bordeaux and stun AS Rome. That call came only a couple of weeks after club owner Arpad Paszkany was showing his support for Andone, saying that “he’ll grow old at this club”…
Just one point behind Dinamo, CFR has failed to impress me in the first half of the season, not to mention their first game of the year, won 1-0 versus FCM Targu Mures. Still, what will happen if this teams finally clicks? The manager Jorge Costa has changed from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 to make better use of the available players, but there are question marks regarding their back four, especially on the flanks, as well as their attack. The schedule could favor them though, as they’ll play away only against FC Vaslui and Dinamo, but the consecutive matches between rounds 23 and 25 (vs Otelul, Vaslui and Rapid) should find them in top shape…
Two Brazilians have been released and Costa will have problems replacing at least one of them. If Pantelis Kapetanos, once a reliable goalscorer for Steaua, has already netted a winner vs Targu Mures, playing instead of Weldon (7 goals in the 1st half of the season), a certain Nicolas Godmeche has been signed to replace Renan Garcia, who now plays for Sampdoria.
Last season: 1st
Squad quality: Average
Key player: Gabriel Paraschiv
Hot prospect: Laurentiu Bus
Strengths: Teamwork / Work ethic
Weaknesses: Lack of firepower / The presence in the Champions League’s group stage
The champions have a slim chance to win another title. Although the Supercup (1-0 against Steaua) showed that nothing changed with Dorinel Munteanu’s team in terms of players, tactics and hunger for success, the Champions League will surely affect their concentration in Liga I and will leave its mark on a reduced roster. Plus, the bigger clubs will make sure that Otelul will not pull another stunt like they did last season, when their title chances were rated at 67/1 by the bookies.
Keep an eye on Laurentiu Bus, a small attacking midfielder who already decided the Supercup with a very nice goal, another one of Marius Stan’s top signings from the second division, but expect Otelul to suffer when they’ll be missing the impressive veteran Gabriel Paraschiv.
It might not be a winning season for Otelul, but it will surely be one to remember!
Last season: 3rd
Squad quality: Good
Key player: Wesley
Hot prospect: Razvan Neagu
Strengths: Squad cohesion / Quality attackers / Hunger for success
Weaknesses: No winning pedigree
Since Adrian Porumboiu took over the club, FC Vaslui finished every season in a higher position and I have to say that the tradition has every chance to be respected. The club has been banned from signing new players and this brought a stability that should help them not just in Europe, but also in the first part of the season, when they’ll be matched only by Otelul and Dinamo in terms of team cohesion. If something goes wrong, Vaslui could fix it anyway, as the wealthy owner will have a chance to prove himself between the 10th (when the transfer ban will end) and the 20th (last day of summer mercato in Romania) of September.
The team relies on an excellent attacking trio formed by Wesley, Adailton and Lucian Sanmartean, but Romanian youngster Razvan Neagu, who had an off-year in his development, impressed in pre-season and might add something upfront.
Last season: 4th
Squad quality: Very good
Key player: Danut Coman
Hot prospect: Sabrin Sburlea
Strengths: Top competition within the team / Crowd support at home
Weaknesses: Inconsistent form when playing away / Completely reshaped midfield
Razvan Lucescu returns at club level, after an experience with the national team that should serve him well. Last time he was in charge, Rapid recorded the best ever performance in Europe, but now the club will give it all for a title that, if it has a chance to return to Bucharest, than this is the best equipped club of the “big guns”.
Rapid lost some quality players like Costin Lazar, Juliano Spadacio and Marius Constantin, but they’ve made good moves on the market, adding the likes of Alexa, Apostol and Deac, all national team players, without spending much. They might need some time to gel, but they’ll be very difficult to break down, will remain a force at home and, with more consistency, they could be going all the way.
Last season: 5th
Squad quality: Good
Key player: Ciprian Tatarusanu
Hot prospect: Raul Rusescu
Strengths: Top defense / Club stature
Weaknesses: Huge pressure / Lack of support at home
It was all looking good for Steaua, after the arrival of Ronny Levy, but the Supercup showed exactly the same team that disappointed last season. Well organized at the back, but lacking creative midfielders and prolific forwards, this club has big chances to disappoint once again, especially after the decision to abandon the stadium that has recorded basically every success achieved by the red and blue outfit.
Ciprian Tatarusanu might play his last season for Steaua, as he should move abroad soon enough, and I’ve decided to “gamble” on Rusescu (yet another transfer from the dead and buried Unirea Urziceni), as I consider Florin Gardos more of a certainty, after his excellent first season in Liga I.
Last season: 6th
Squad quality: Good
Key player: Gabriel Torje
Hot prospect: Cristian Balgradean
Strengths: Top quality in the last third
Weaknesses: Lack of support at home / Inexperienced coach / Poor teamwork
The club lost contact with the fans, had a summer in which Liviu Ciobotariu (finally confirmed as head coach) looked like he was preparing the team for another coach and will start a season without the same hunger for success. There are problems in the board and the players often look to be playing for personal success only, hoping for moves away that obvious talents like Gabriel Torje or Marius Alexe are yet to complete.
In spite of its strike force, Dinamo should struggle with the same fragile defense and a very thin midfield line that will be lacking steel and ability to protect the unreliable back four.
Last season: 10th
Squad quality: Good
Key player: Ricardo Cadu
Hot prospect: Sergiu Bus
Strengths: Ambition to succeed again / Quality midfield
Weaknesses: Lack of cohesion
CFR had a terrible season, but finally looks once again eager to fight for the league. They have in Jorge Costa an ambitious coach and the sort of person that can dominate a dressing room disrupted in the past couple of season by the Portuguese legion. It’s still there and with a number of new faces, but the key is to get team captain Cadu in the right state of mind.
CFR doesn’t look at all short in terms of quality and quantity, but the team might need a couple of months, if not more, to gel and become a force. Of course, if the club made the right moves on the transfer market…
P.S. You should also check this interview, to have a better overview of the league, ahead of the new season.