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…
Unirea Urziceni, Romanian title holders, the team already considered Liverpool’s marked victim, in the UEFA Europa League double. Here are some (hopefully) interesting facts, statistics and personal views, ahead of the first leg, that will be played at Anfield on the 18th of February:
- Unirea is, at this point, an unpredictable team even for Romanian fans and pundits. The departure of Dan Petrescu (THE guy who invented the team that won the title and collected eight points in the Champions League group stage) and the appointment of Ronny Levy as head coach should have brought some changes in the team’s tactics, mentality and approach. Usually a very, very disciplined team, with an organized game and paths followed by the players with their eyes closed, Unirea could and should have changed partially their style under the Israeli coach.
- Although Romanians haven’t seen a single friendly game played this winter, press reports suggest a switch from the usual 4-1-4-1 system to a 4-2-3-1. Without a single player bought during the mercato period (and three departed, striker Danalache, who wasn’t among the players registered for the Champions League, and wingers Tiberiu Balan and Dacian Varga, both dangerous offensive weapons and regular starters in the first half of season), Levy will try to use wisely a decent roster by Romanian standards. Besides Varga and Balan, Levy will be without the solid anchorman Ricardo, who turned up very late after the winter break, and he will also have to leave out one of the team’s best players, the Argentinian Brandan (who feels jaded after a missed transfer to Stuttgart), so, most likely the starting eleven will look like this: Arlauskis – Maftei, Galamaz, Bruno Fernandes, Bordeanu – Paraschiv, Apostol – Semedo, Onofras, Frunza – Bilasco. So, even those tempted to say that Unirea looks pretty much the same way like before, the fact is that Levy will be without the best left back, the best anchorman and the best wingers. So, if the Romanian champions are to stand any chance, he’d better have produced some tactical miracles.
- Latest news give Portuguese right winger Semedo little chances to feature in the first leg. In case he won’t make it (twisted an ankle on 31st of January) Levy will have every chance to deploy a more defensive team, as he did in the last three friendly matches: a 4-4-2 with Dinu Todoran on the right side of midfield and Onofras will be the second striker with the task of dropping down (he has excellent stamina and work rate) when the Reds have the ball and pushing forward on the channels created by centre forward Marius Bilasco.
- Unirea played 7 friendly matches since the team resumed training, winning 4, drawing 1 and losing 2 – 7 goals scored, 2 goals received. For those interested in betting, not a single match finished “over 2,5”.
- One player in particular has an interesting story. Epaminonda Nicu (30) is the only player that was part of the wonderful adventure which saw this small club progressing from Romania’s third tier to the title and the Champions League group stage. Nicu improved impressively and always gave his best to rise to the challenge, playing both as central defender and right back. Since 2003, he collected 161 matches in Romania for Urziceni and only this season, after the transfer of former Rapid Bucharest skipper Vasile Maftei, he found it more difficult to get a place in the starting eleven.