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:
Important players in: Claudiu Keseru (Bastia), Lucian Sanmartean (FC Vaslui)
Important players out: Alexandru Bourceanu (Trabzonspor)
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.
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.
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)
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.
Whenever I was asked about the level of Romanian football, I was pointing out to the 5-6 teams that, theoretically, were fighting for the title, a fact that was setting Liga I apart in Eastern Europe, where 2 or 3 teams usually race for the top spot. Unfortunately, it won’t be the case anymore, as well hidden financial trouble surfaced in several “big” clubs threatening their own existence…
As the new season kicks-off today, with Timisoara hosting Dinamo, in what was a while ago a hugely anticipated game, I will try to go quickly through the changes that took place this summer, to give you an idea of what the league should look like in the new campaign.
Title contenders: Steaua Bucharest, CFR Cluj
- Steaua Bucharest – the incarceration of Gigi Becali was and still is a problem for the reigning champions, who used to rely on Becali’s cash injections every once in a while, to keep things running smoothly. It won’t be the case anymore, so it all depends now on a) entering the group stages of the Champions League or b) selling the top players. After Raul Rusescu’s departure to FC Seville, Steaua decided to give it a go in Europe, putting on hold the otherwise imminent departures of players like Tatarusanu, Chiriches, Latovlevici, Chipciu or Bourceanu, all demanded abroad. If plan A succeeds, it is difficult to see this team challenged in Liga I, having every chance to defend the title won in style last year.
- CFR Cluj – probably the only other club ambitious enough, financially ready and well equipped to mount a title challenge. It will be tough, anyway, as CFR went yet again through massive changes especially in terms of personnel. Lots of players were simply released on a free transfer, with only Ivo Pinto and Bakary Sare sold for handsome fees to Dinamo Zagreb, and the new coach, Mircea Rednic, supervised the arrival of no less than 12 new faces… and counting. Although there’s quality in the staff, on the bench and within the team, it will take time to create a team, but CFR’s chances could be boosted by Steaua’s (logical) gamble of trying to focus on a European adventure in the first part of the season.
Teams fighting for a place in Europe: Vaslui, Astra, Petrolul, Dinamo
- FC Vaslui – in its’ short history, Vaslui had created a nice habit of always finishing the league on a higher position than in the previous season, but the wealthy owner Adrian Porumboiu decided it takes too much time, money and nerves to always unsettle the hierarchy and took a step back. This is why I am downgrading the yellow and green outfit this season, in spite of keeping the team at a competitive level, with some good free agents signed from abroad, to compensate the departure of Coman, N’Doye and Milanov, all regular starters last season.
- Astra – qualified for the first time in Europe last season, Astra kept basically the same team (can still sign one or two interesting names) and will probably experience less financial trouble than others. I don’t trust their coach, but I guess this goes for the owner as well, who has the bad habit of changing things at least 2-3 times per campaign. If he nails a good one and sticks with him, he has every chance of repeating last season’s feat.
- Petrolul – unfortunately, the club that benefits from the fantastic support of a passionate fan base failed to capitalize on a good season. The Romanian Cup winners didn’t work very well during the summer and the squad looks seriously weakened, so I doubt they can aim higher. It will be hard to win against them on “Ilie Oana”, but the 12th player, no matter how good he is, can’t enter the pitch and do the work of the first 11.
- Dinamo – Massive changes took place at the Bucharest club, but at least the Red Dogs reacted quicker than Rapid and balanced the club’s budget in time. Good players like Nica and Alexe left, but that’s the way to keep alive a club with little income and the experienced coach Gigi Multescu seems the right man to mix the old players with some new faces that could help the team this season and become transfer targets within a year or two.
Mid-table teams: Pandurii, Gaz Metan, Ceahlaul, Rapid, Otelul
- Once at least a team fighting for a place in Europe if not for the title, Rapid barely avoided the drop and will mix a lot of youngsters with the few experienced players that refused to abandond the derailed train will probably aim for a safe season, which will also be a test for the club’s much awaited new ownership. Financially safe, Pandurii and Gaz Metan should have no relegation worries, although the beautiful team from Targu Jiu created by Petre Grigoras is now history, with the coach and the best players allowed to leave in the last few months. Ceahlaul added some experience with the likes of Emil Jula and Gabriel Canu and will be an interesting first coaching experience in Romania for Vasile Miriuta, while Otelul‘s worries depend mostly on the club’s financial state.
Teams fighting to avoid the drop: FC Brasov, Universitatea Cluj, Viitorul Constanta and the four promoted clubs, Sageata Navodari, Corona Brasov, Poli Timisoara and FC Botosani.
12 goals scored in 13 matches in the second half of last season meant that Petrolul could avoid an immediate return to the second flight, but also that the 26 years old striker will enjoy some attention this summer. According to the former manager, Valeriu Rachita, the man that signed Younes back in March for 150.000 Euros – a sum that he didn’t even had to pay upfront – the Tunisian had a highest bid of 1,5 million Euros this summer, coming from a 1.Bundesliga club. Later, he revealed that it was Hannover 96 the team that wanted the player, but the yellow-blue outfit had already decided to keep him, offering a new and better deal, lasting until June 2015. A mistake, in my opinion, financially speaking, but a good move for the team’s ambitions, if we look at the way the season started for the Yellow Wolves, with a 5-0 win against Ceahlaul Piatra-Neamt.
Hamza was used upfront, alongside the young Romanian international Gicu Grozav – once at Standard Liege -, and the partnership worked like a charm. If Grozav scored once, offered two assists and was also involved in the move that lead to the last goal, the Tunisian striker scored an impressive hattrick, which gets his average above one goal per match in Liga I! He’s now got 15 in just a few months, while the all-time best foreign striker to have ever featured in Liga I, FC Vaslui’s Wesley, has 62 goals scored since September 2009. The Brazilian scored a brace as well in the first round and the most exciting strikers in Romania will meet next weekend, in a very attractive match scheduled on Saturday evening, in Vaslui.
Let me give you the facts straight away. Two days ago, the following story “leaked” from Petrolul’s offices: “A foreign investment fund ran, among others, by Sven-Goran Eriksson, is interested in taking over the club”. A day later, when it was all still in the dark, the manager Valeriu Rachita, who had already announced his intention to leave this summer, looked for a stronger effect and came out himself with the story on national television. Then, local media presented a written (and already registered with the Local Council of Ploiesti) letter of intent, signed by a certain Nicola Imputato, speaking on behalf of Seamed, an investment bank with offices in London and Auckland. Of course, Eriksson was the name that was going to get everyone’s attention, the most important piece of the puzzle!
All this has been all over the news in the past two days and who could have missed it? Nobody, really! Unfortunately, though, you get the same answer if you browse through the media channels – both local and national – to find out if someone really checks such a story before selling it to the fans. Nobody…
Thanks to Jamie Jackson and David Hills, from The Guardian, who were kind enough to give me a hand, the story reached the coach, who firmly denied any involvement. So, why was the Swede’s name involved in this story in the first place? For business or political interest? My guess is for both :-)
It’s possible that the Italian guy who sent the letter wanted to get the attention of the authorities – although the club that survived in recent years only thanks to public funds now belongs to a businessman – and Eriksson’s famous enough for his recent interest in all sorts of deals, as long as the right amount of money is at stake. It’s also possible that, with the current mayor of Ploiesti, Andrei Volosevici, involved in a desperate campaign to get himself re-elected wasn’t surprised at all by the arrival of this attractive proposal for the future of the club. He will want every vote and football fans would love the idea of challenging for the title one season after barely avoiding relegation. And, with the vote scheduled on the 10th of June, this kind of story does come up at the right time, doesn’t it?
David Conn’s excellent piece from The Guardian on the rise of Swansea is definitely worth a read. You can find it here and I will draw now a parallel. Using less words and a large number of spelling and grammar mistakes, I’d like to offer you the story of Petrolul Ploiesti, one I know in detail, as we’re talking about the club from my home town.
It all started years ago, when Liviu Luca, the leader of one of the biggest unions in Romania, got hold of the club without paying a dime, switching one day from sponsor to owner without anyone opposing what seemed like a natural move at that time. It was a good period for Petrolul, who had just won their last domestic trophy, the Romanian Cup. Years went by and during a season that saw the team finish the first half in second place just to give up the fight in the spring, “offering” points to all those in need, it became clear that sporting success is not among the owners’ priorities.
Luca, just like Ninth Floor did with Swansea, publicly asked for 1 US Dollar to give up the club, at a meeting with the local journalists. The owner of a newspaper, now running for mayor in Ploiesti, Iulian Badescu, wrote a letter of intent that very day and presented an official offer. Of course, Luca (who once asked his players to fix a match, having a gun on the table!) was bluffing and the club remained one of the means to use the union’s money in a way that, in the end, got him in trouble with the law… Bad call for Luca, worse for Petrolul, whose fans had to wait for years to see once again a glimmer of hope when another journalist, Dragos Patraru (my cousin and best friend), initiated a local movement called “Petrolul e al nostru” (Petrolul is ours), hoping to get the club back from the current shareholders and offer it back to the city.
Over 15.000 signatures (in a city with a population below 200.000) were raised with the help of enthusiastic fans who took the streets every day for weeks and the Local Council was forced to discuss the possibility of acquiring back the club. Getting together incredibly rich union leaders with desperate for votes and money politicians wasn’t the best idea though, but everyone, including those who supported the movement with their signatures and efforts, refused the suggestion to start from scratch and build a new, solid structure, taking only the club’s name from the current owners and cutting all the other strings. They wanted first division football, as quickly as possible. So, the two parties shook hands and… became best friends.
Three years after that moment, the shareholders are the same, but the money to run the club come from the Local Council. As if this wasn’t enough, the old stadium was replaced by an attractive new arena and offered for free to a private club, completely supported with public funds. Oh, I forgot, the club is in debt – almost 3 million Euros – and the transfer from the current owners to the Local Council cannot be completed until the debt is cleared. The owners don’t want to do it, while the Local Council cannot do it :). Starting from scratch was the best idea, but, hey, Petrolul’s in the top flight, although not for very long, given the current position in the standings…
The yellow and blue outfit, in the current setup and ownership uncertainty, looks once again doomed. The club might avoid relegation, but unless a radical change takes place and a new, solid foundation is laid, will lose the fight with the mediocrity that comes with sheer amateurism. Too bad for the idea and the fans that were the force able to move things, the pressure firmly applied on the politicians who ran the city and Petrolul’s true engine that helped the three times Romanian champions climb back from the third division to the top flight. The supporters who were promised to have a say have been tricked. Those loyal and influential were offered jobs within the club, giving up the idea of having a representative in the club’s board and act like a supervisor for the masses, ensuring nothing that could affect the club’s present and future stays behind closed doors. But who would want that to happen? Not a politician, nor a union leader who’s in serious trouble with the law or the dubious business man who has been trying to control things from a distance in the past couple of months, for the simple reason that he’s already the owner of another Liga I club.
What makes the difference between Petrolul and Swansea? Simple: the Yellow Wolves are still being used by those who run the club, while the Swans are already used to running the club. Who said football is not about the fans anymore?
Matteo Gritti and Idan Baruch have caught the spotlight after only two rounds played in 2012 in the Romanian top tier, but for the wrong reasons. Both goalkeepers have signed for struggling clubs and their “performances” managed to affect not only their teams’ results, but also their image.
The Italian Gritti, who plays for Petrolul Ploiesti, let in four goals in 180 minutes, against top opponents like Vaslui (1-2, at home) and Rapid (0-2, away), but those received on Sunday evening, in Bucharest, have been related to a story that accuses the 31 years of match fixing. Swiss journalists insist that the outcome of the match was already decided and that the player is part of a network that influences the outcome of games for betting purposes and that an investigation is taking place for months on this topic.
Gritti’s performances cannot be compared though to what the Concordia’s keeper, Baruch, did against FC Vaslui, after a good first performance against Otelul Galati, won against the former champions with 1-0. The goalie from Israel – who last season played in Romania’s second division for FC Snagov, a team suspected of dirty business after some very strange results & high scoring games – offered a rare “show” and allowing three goals in 45 minutes… These images need no more comments. Ok, maybe one: if both scenarios are true, Baruch really needs to start learning from Gritti, otherwise he’ll have a hard time making a career…
Three new coaches, with impressive credentials, took over this winter clubs with either important tradition (Mark Wotte – Universitatea Craiova) or important ambitions (Andrea Mandorlini – CFR Cluj, Ronny Levy – Unirea Urziceni) and they offered new credit to promising players, who had found little or no space in their teams in the past:
- Ciprian Deac - 24 years old, left winger/forward, CFR Cluj
Left footed attacking player, who made his debut in the top flight for CFR three seasons ago, in a team packed with foreign players, showing a lot of promise. Enjoyed a good spell on loan at Otelul Galati, where he was a regular starter for half a season, but once he returned to Cluj “regained”his backup/rotation status. In total, he has played 51 matches for CFR, but started only 18 matches! This year, under Italian coach Andrea Mandorlini, Deac was immediately handed a start, although in a surprising position – a right winger in a 4-3-3 system. Read more…