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.
“Earthquake with world-class match fixers! A nightmare expects FC Vaslui when they’ll play Fenerbahce” – This is the title that created a huge scandal in Turkey, after the article written by Gazeta Sporturilor was presented by the Istanbul media outlets. I cannot know what the Turkish press wrote, but I can guess that they’ve speculated a title that is bombastic as usual and, again as usual, has little to do with the article itself.
I’ll go through the piece, with an accurate translation / presentation of each phrase:
“Rocked by a match fixing scandal in the previous season and with one title won in the last five seasons, Vaslui’s opponent compensates with the fantastic atmosphere on Sukru Sarioglu and the stars Kuyt, Topal and Alex.
Fener was excluded last season from the Champions League by UEFA, but now enters the competition as runners-up in the Turkish league. The coach Aykut Kocaman rotated the team’s stars this summer: the loans of Ziegler and Yobo ended, Emre went to Atletico Madrid and Dia plays now in Qatar, but in Istanbul arrived the likes of Mehmet Topal, Dirk Kuyt and Kaldirim.
The top veterans create a tsunami at home
The team’s spine is formed by players that are already established: the keeper Demirel, 55 caps for Turkey, the Brazilian captain Alex, the Senegalese Sow, brought from Lille for 8,8 mil. Euros, plus other three players with around 100 games for Fener each: Senturk, Topuz and Selcuk. Not to mention the Slovakian talent Stoch, who comes from Chelsea.
At home, Fener is like an unleashed beast, with just one defeat in the last 32 official games and can impose a terrible pace to the game: under Kocaman, there’s an average of 2,1 goals scored per match.
Statements from Marius Sumudica and Adrian Porumboiu follow, both praising Fenerbahce’s strength and support.
Below, a presentation of what follows if Vaslui manages to go through or if the Romanian side will be eliminated.
The article ends with some info on Fenerbahce, as follows: Kocaman is in charge since 2010, while Vaslui changed 3 coaches since then; the Kadikoy area from Istanbul has 700.000 people, 10 times more than the entire city of Vaslui; “The yellow and black hell” has been built in 1908 and improved in 1999; Fener won 18 titles, while Vaslui has spent only 7 years in the Romanian first division”.
As you can see, apart from the title – which might not even belong to the author – and an objective, based on facts, mention about the match fixing scandal, the article praises Fener’s strength and shows the big gap between the two teams that will meet in the Champions League’s preliminary rounds… Still, that title was enough for the Turkish media to blow everything out of proportion and if my Twitter feed has been “on fire” on this topic, you can imagine what happens on Turkish forums…
The Fenerbahce fans are very angry about this and, as usual, several scenarios have appeared. It goes from “it’s an article paid by Galatasaray’s board” to “I’ve heard that the editor of that website is the nephew of Gica Popescu, who played for Galatasaray”. Popescu, who is only in his early 40’s…
So this is what a stupid, bombastic title in Romania – who, by the way, has had for years a league where match fixing has been quite a common practice! – speculated by the Turkish media can do to Fener’s fans, who are talking about the un-finished trial, the effect on the stock exchange, the reactions of their rival fans and, of course, “a real crime”, without realizing that they are tricked – once again – by the press, who remains desperate to make everything it takes to gather more clicks and to sell more papers…
Well, pretty much has been said regarding Otelul Galati ahead of the huge match against Manchester United, but let me take you back seven years, when the Red Devils were winning on the same stadium 2-1, against Dinamo Bucharest. At the press conference, asked to pick one of the home team’s players that impressed, Sir Alex Ferguson said “the left back”.
The left back was a 25 years old Romanian called Dorin Semeghin, who had moved to Dinamo from Foresta Suceava, after his home town club had managed to stun the Red Dogs by coming back from 0-4 to win 5-4 in Bucharest. Small, quick, gifted with a very good left foot and so attacking minded that he often forgot to defend, Semeghin was famous at that time for his off the pitch exploits rather than his outstanding performances in Liga I. Ferguson’s praise wasn’t going to help him either and he went on to be known as “Semeghin – spaima sticlelor de vin”, which rhymes in Romanian and means “Semeghin – the threat of the wine bottles” in English. He was playing for a red and white club and enjoying both types of wines probably came naturally…
“I now regret that I haven’t made good use of Sir Alex’s praise”, reckons Semeghin for Evenimentul Zilei, where he proudly spoke about the good start he enjoys with his new club, Rapid CFR Suceava. In the Romanian third tier! He recalls shaking the hand of the great manager and is proud to say that even though he didn’t chase any of the players after the two matches, he still managed to get two extremely valuable shirts: one from Ryan Giggs, the other from Paul Scholes.
“I haven’t tasted alcohol in five years, but you have to take my word for it”, says the little player, who is now 32 and heads towards retirement in the lower leagues, after 224 matches in Liga I, with around 60 of them played for none other than Otelul Galati. A team full of individuals that will try to impress in Tuesday’s match. Hopefully, Sir Alex Ferguson won’t praise anyone at the end of it!
It’s enough to look at the standings, with the champions just above the relegation zone, to realize that even though Otelul kept all the players that impressed last term, the team lost something along the way. Unfortunately for them, the something in question is what Italians call “l’umilta”. The modesty of a group that last season knew so well that they need to outpace and outmuscle the opposition, having less technical quality, was key to the surprising success. Now that it’s gone, this team looks average in its best days and, what’s even worse, the players are getting the wrong messages from its leaders. There’s talk about the number of points that will be collected in the group stage, with only Manchester United considered too strong for a team that in three matches against newly promoted clubs in Liga I collected only one win! Considering the players’ (lack of) form and adding the wrong type of approach, I expect Otelul to reconsider their position right after the away game at Basel. And start using Modesty, Determination and Ambition in their first eleven just like last season, because they stand a chance against both Man United and Concordia Chiajna only if they start looking again at every match as a game of inches…
As you probably know by now, Otelul Galati has won the Romanian championship. What you probably don’t know is who in Unirea Urziceni’s name is Otelul Galati. Prepare for a shorter walk than the 200 kilometers the club’s president promised to go on foot, back in November 2010, when all this was just a joke, as I will present you the club every Champions League participant will want to meet in autumn, in the group stage.
In the summer of 2009, Marius Stan, Otelul’s president, was offering a two years long deal to the most capped Romanian player in the national team’s history, Dorinel Munteanu. The man who represented his country 134 times had returned home, to Cologne, angered by accusations of match-fixing launched by former employers. Trying to clear his name in court was the right thing to do, but the wisest thing was to do it on the pitch. And, two years later, “Munti” was winning, against all odds, a league that had no less than six contenders at the beginning of the season, who tried everything to stop him. They came across a stubborn, determined, workaholic team, that multiplied by 11 Munteanu’s approach to the game he never cheated as a professional, and failed.
Meet “Galati Steelers”!
You might have heard of a certain Lakshmi Mittal. Yes, the wealthy owner of QPR, who will face the likes of Roman Abramovich in the Premier League, but, at the same time, might challenge the Russian’s club in the Champions League. And that thanks to Otelul Galati, the club that dreamed to become the Eastern Europe’s Chelsea, when the city’s immense steel factory was bought by the Indian’s company, but rarely received more than survival money, in Liga I.
It was disappointing for those at the club, but not for the old fox Marius Stan, who had made an attempt to become the city’s mayor in 2007, one that might have more success if repeated after this incredible performance. Just like most of his players, the president doesn’t lack tempting offers ;-)
This is the first title in the club’s history, which starts in 1964 and records the first promotion in the top flight in 1986! Two years later, Otelul was playing in the UEFA Cup against the mighty Juventus, recording a memorable 1-0 at home, before losing 0-5 in the second leg. “La Vecchia Signora” was counting on names like Stefano Tacconi, Alessandro Altobelli or Michael Laudrup, while Otelul’s midfield was built around a certain Marius Stan. With him at the helm, the red and white club from Galati was going to win the Intertoto Cup in 2007, a feat followed by a quick exit from the UEFA Cup.
Munteanu’s work and Otelul’s honest workers
In his first days as a coach, Munteanu tried to implement a 4-2-1-3 setup that was used on a large scale in the 1.Bundesliga, a formation he kept on tweaking in the creative – finishing department, after he moved away from CFR Cluj and gained more and more experience at Steaua, FC Arges and FC Vaslui, but constantly improved the functionality of the back four, in combination with the two defensive midfielders. His tactics and the strict approach found the perfect group of players in Galati, where a bunch of youngsters raised by Otelul in the third and second tier was completed by some bargain buys from second division clubs from both Romania and nearby countries. The president’s eye for talents and ability to sign them for some tens of thousands of Euros was going to pay dividends.
These players, desperate to make a name for themselves and move on, in search of better wages, added muscle and energy to an experienced back-bone formed by Sergiu Costin, Gabriel Giurgiu and Gabriel Paraschiv, who offered inspiration (you can find here Paraschiv’s incredible request to get a wage cut!) and ensured that Munteanu’s requests are fulfilled both during the very demanding training sessions and during the matches.
Rapa versus Messi, Neagu tackling Cesc, Ilie racing past Lahm?
There are no standout players in this team. Can’t find a lot of flair and the skill lost its importance with the 11 bees spending more time off than on the ball and this team could get slaughtered in the Champions League.
We thought the same in September, in November, Marius Stan was promising that he’ll walk from Galati to Slanic Moldova (that’s 200 kilometers, Forrest!), if his team wins the league, and we were sure in March that Otelul will drop from the top of the table so bad, that the team won’t even be able to secure a place in Europa League. The players were buzzing though and just managed to hang on, taking advantage of the fight between the other title contenders and some game-winning mistakes in their favor, committed by the refs. They were used to fight for survival and, this season, they did it. Just that they were defending the 1st place, not the 14th!
Who is Cornel Rapa? A 21 years old right back, who didn’t stay long in the U21, before moving into the senior national team. Ok, that’s not very hard, judging by the current level of Romania’s squad, but it’s still something that doesn’t happen too often.
Ionut Neagu has an interesting story too. He was playing for CSM Ramnicu Sarat in 2009, simply the worst team in the Romanian second division, when he was called back to Otelul during the winter break. Offered the chance to start in central midfield, he was going to lose that place only when injured or suspended.
Liviu Antal, Laurentiu Bus or Adrian Salagean are Marius Stan’s findings in the second tier, while Branko Grahovac and Milan Perendija are the winning bets placed by the same guy on the foreign market, somewhere he didn’t do very well, in the past.
All these guys, with no pedigree or experience, earning around 50.000 Euros per season – and still willing to accept wage cuts! – proved that serious, hard and professional work can pay off. Get ready to see some scared young faces on the biggest European stage in autumn, but try to accept that the Romanians who will fight for every ball and every inch, killing the show, are no longer gifted like Hagi, but determined and hard-working like Munteanu. Those ready to write them off should keep in mind though that Unirea Urziceni, who has now relegated to the second division and could even disappear as a club, collected a record tally of eight points, in a group formed by Rangers, Stuttgart and Seville…
“I’ll never forget that match, but I am ready to produce another similar performance. I think we could qualify from this group!” These are the words of the Argentinian Juan Emmanuel Culio, the man who stunned Olimpico two years ago with a winning brace that probably delighted the bookmakers and offered CFR the right to dream in a group that also featured the mighty Chelsea and Laurent Blanc’s Bordeaux. Should the world think twice before writing off the Romanian champions, ahead of Tuesday’s clash? Not really.
Even though Culio looks in decent shape, you can’t say the same about a team that will probably feature just four of the “heroes” that produced one of Champions League’s biggest surprises. Stancioiu should start in goal, the experienced Panin will play at right back, while team-captain Cadu will try to keep things tight at the back, an impossible mission looking at CFR’s recent games, including the 2-1 home win against FC Basel.
Leaving aside Sorin Cartu’s problems in finding a winning formula, the team suffered another huge blow on Friday, in the hot derby against Universitatea, losing the valuable Gabriel Muresan, the anchorman, a vital player in defense, a hard tackler in midfield and a good organizer when CFR’s in possession. With the Portuguese Dani recently sold, Cartu finds himself in a surprising position, knowing the number and the quality of players available in theory. He uses a centre-back as a left back, but the winning gamble on the massive Ionut Rada from the first match might soon be regretted, will have to shuffle his cards in midfield, moving Emil Dica and Emmanuel Culio from the flanks (where they played on Friday) into the middle, as the Argentinian Sixto Peralta has not been registered for this competition, which also happened to the often decisive striker Cristi Bud. Read more…