The champions have started in style. No worries in Liga 1, where Claudiu Keseru managed to score six in one game (in theory, Pandurii is one of the decent clubs, but in practice they often try not to upset a top business partner like Steaua) and very few teams will be able to pose a real threat during the current campaign. On the European stage, all going as planned so far and the red and blue outfit are 90 minutes away from another profitable presence in the Champions League group stage, having already a one goal advantage over Ludogorets, thanks to their top performer, Alexandru Chipciu.
So, results are here right away, in spite of the lack of experience of Costel Galca, money isn’t a problem, the fans are behind the team (all over the country). All seems well, especially as in a dozen lines I didn’t mention Gigi Becali. But, oops!, the name is here now, yet the man is still behind bars (alongside his right hand Mihai Stoica), and the problem that could affect Steaua’s promising season arises.
Not only Becali took out of the club’s account a big chunk of the over 10 millions euros profit registered last season, but he also kept a firm grip on the club, seriously restricting Steaua’s movement on the transfer market, where important departures (past or imminent – Tanase and Latovlevici have been repeatedly linked with foreign clubs) need(ed) to be adressed.
The problem is that the club’s structure is poor, it also only exists to approve and execute the owner’s wishes and Steaua’s view of the market is as narrow as the space between two bars. Without Stoica, there’s nobody both informed and confident enough to take an unknown name to Becali, so the club’s recent targets have been only current or past Liga 1 players.
Of the team that battled it out with the likes of Chelsea or Schalke, a handful of key players are gone. With Tatarusanu (Fiorentina), Chiriches (Tottenham), Gardos (Southampton), Bourceanu (Trabzonspor) and Pintilii (Al Hilal), the very backbone of the team was extracted and, in spite of all the income, Steaua failed to add players with either similar quality or at least potential. But the reason isn’t just the reluctance to spend some money. In fact, the Bucharest outfit went after players of proven value, but in the only league Becali knew: the Romanian first division. A league that had already offered its best products to the club in recent years, a league that struggles to produce new talent at a good rate.
That’s why Steaua signed Arlauskis (former league winner with Unirea Urziceni), Luchin (former Dinamo Bucharest player, signed from Botev Plovdiv), Breeveld (Pandurii) and Lemnaru (Universitatea Cluj, a player Galca doesn’t even like). And that is the only reason why the club makes no secret in its intention to bring back to Liga 1 Jeremy Bokila, a striker who impressed with Petrolul, before moving to Terek Groznii. He’s the main and last target once/if the Champions League group stage is reached, although he’s been a flop in Russia and, more importantly, Terek can afford to speculate Steaua’s desperate approach and ask for a lot of money (approx 2 million euros) for a fringe player.
Steaua is definitely weaker than last season, although Galca does some good work on the training pitch, yet the downfall of the solid team lead to important success by Laurentiu Reghecampf might not catch the eye that quickly. The group stage of the Champions League is only 90 minutes away, while the route to another league title remains accessible. A defeat (with the wrong scoreline) in Bulgaria could expose though the fact that Becali was wrong to take away from his club exactly what he’s missing the most: the freedom. The freedom to move, to dare, to act.
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.
The reigning champions, the only Romanian club to win a European trophy, a constant presence on the European stage, the team with the largest fan base in the entire country and the only Bucharest “giant” still performing these days organized a try-out for kids born in 2002, 2003 and 2004. 14 turned up. A shocking number really, not only for Steaua, but for Romania. Still, the red and blue outfit, who is trying to revitalize its youth sector with Italian coach Massimo Pedrazzini in charge, must take a big chunk of the blame.
Having a wealthy and impatient owner – he’s taking a course on this, now that he’s behind bars – has worked against Steaua in recent years. Used to pick the best talents from all over the country, Gigi Becali’s favorite toy made one attempt to build a proper academy some years ago. Of course, it was burning some stages and basically missing the point, as 16-17-18 years old were bought and integrated into the youth teams, so it’s no surprise, really, that Becali pulled the plug once he saw that a dozen of youth international actually went on to waste their talents under poor guidance and with no early shot at senior football.
Now, after years of mediocrity, some heavy defeats in the youth leagues and a desperate move made to avoid embarrassment in the UEFA Youth League, there’s really no surprise that a message on the club’s website and Pedrazzini’s personal Facebook page (this is another story…) failed to erase the feeling that Steaua, as shiny as the first team looks, provides a bleak future for your kid. The lack of strategy, know-how and patience within the red and blue structures means drastic measures can rock the “academy” at any time, out of the blue. Add to this the chances close to zero to make it in the senior team and it’s obvious why even kids (and dads) who do love Steaua understand that there’s a more concrete opportunity to see such a dream fulfilled by learning the game someplace else. From this point of view, this is a club worth loving from a distance. A 5 star hotel – by Romanian standards – to enjoy as an adult, not a home to grow up in…
Undefeated in the league after 14 matches, Steaua’s situation might not look that bad from a distance, in spite of the club’s failure to impress in a Champions League group they’ve entered with high hopes. Still, the club is in a bad period and both the team’s performancea and results confirm it: Steaua struggles to win matches. In Liga 1, it happened last on October 27 (4 consecutive draws followed). In the Champions League, it never happened. Of course, an optimistic approach would be to note the fact that Reghecampf’s men are also hard to beat, with the last defeat dated on the first day on October, a 0-4 at home against Chelsea, but the Bucharest side is starting to look worried. The arrogance is gone and the horrible performance of the referee that helped Steaua earn a point away at Otelul last Sunday means the club is taking measures. Not the right ones, in my opinion, and this was the last thing we needed in a league that’s going from bad to worse each year…
Steaua’s recent decline, one than can be stopped quickly, with some good calls and some money spent during a winter break, but only if the club identifies its’ real issues and finds the right solutions:
- The team is weaker than last season: the departures of Chiriches and Rusescu, the long term injury of Chipciu and the fitness problems of Pintilii meant an obvious lack of quality, which wasn’t addressed through a clever transfer activity.
- Poor summer mercato. Steaua cashed in big on the above mentioned players, nailed a huge income from the Champions League, yet refused to spend enough and, in consequence, failed to invest properly to strengthen the team. Signing Pantelis Kapetanos, a striker the club had released on a free, without a second thought, a few years ago, was a stunning decision, just as spending around 1 million euro for Vaslui’s Fernando Varela, a defender signed to replace Chiriches, but who fails to even bother Florin Gardos, who stepped in admirably to partner Lukasz Szukala.
- Poor quality upfront – no wonder Steaua’s hard to beat, but struggles to win games, at the same time. There’s been some recent praise for Federico Piovaccari, but the striker loaned from Sampdoria has only 6 goals in Liga 1 and 1 in the Champions League. Behind him, usually operate Tanase, Stanciu and Popa, who netted… 7 times in Liga 1. Steaua desperately need Chipciu to regain his match fitness, but will also need to replace the likes of Kapetanos and Tatu with some real football players…
- Lack of hunger in most of the key players, who only think about their next move. Tatarusanu, the goalkeeper, Bourceanu, the captain, Georgevski, the regular right back, are entering the last six months of their current deals and they’re not going to stay. In turn, Steaua convinced Tanase to extend his deal, instead of finding a buyer for him and the inconsistent Latovlevici, as both players have reached a limit they obviously cannot break.
- There’s no more bad cop / good cop work within the club, with the owner still behind bars and the manager, Mihai Stoica, unable to be the good guy who can solve the players’ problems and ask from them to give back more, in return.
When Steaua turned down the 8 million Euros deal offered by Tottenham, I thought pleading insanity would be the right choice for the red and blue outfit to defend itself in a few months time. But Tottenham came back and came back with more money and, more important, less urgency to get an answer, as the first time it wasn’t the fee, but the pressure to get a yes or a now that blocked a deal. It was obvious that this time it will go through and those who follow me on Twitter (@rbaicu) got a heads-up earlier than everyone else that “Chiriches to #THFC” is back on ;)
The statements to back it up came right after last night’s 2-2 draw against Gaz Metan Medias, a second consecutive game watched by Chiriches from the sidelines. “The transfer is almost done. Clubs have reached an agreement. The owner asked me to reveal the deal, all that remains to be done is finish the paperwork. I hope I will be able to use the player one last time on Tuesday, against Legia”, said Laurentiu Reghecampf, who immediately got an unexpected response from the player’s agent, Ioan Becali. “It was wrong of Steaua to announce the deal, the player is yet to agree terms with Tottenham. They also have another match to play, Chiriches wasn’t supposed to know all this.”
Of course, you can understand the agent’s point of view, although I found it odd that he decided to hide all this from his client – a scenario confirmed later by Steaua’s sporting director, Mihai Stoica: “Experience tells me you cannot hide such a thing from a player. Even if the agent didn’t say anything to him, Chiriches was aware of the move this morning (Saturday morning). He should have known that against Legia he will play his last match from Steaua. As for the decision to announce the deal, it was Gigi Becali’s demand from prison and we have to obey. Reghecampf was asked to break the news and also announce the 9,5 million Euros fee.”
Well, Stoica completed Reghecampf’s job with this last detail, which places the Bucharest club on top of the highest transfer fees ever received by a Liga 1 outfit. Interesting fact: top three moves involve defenders, with the former Benfica trainee staying (well) above Cristian Sapunaru, now 29 years old, playing for Elche, who had moved from Rapid to FC Porto in 2008, for 6 million Euros, and Stefan Radu, the 26 years old who’s been with Lazio for the past 5 and a half seasons, signing from Dinamo in 2008, after a half year loan.
1 and a half seasons with International Curtea de Arges, 1 and a half seasons with Pandurii Targu Jiu, 1 and a half seasons with Steaua – even statistically, it looked like this summer was the right time to move for Vlad Chiriches. Without a doubt the best and most exciting defender from Liga 1 and one of the very few Romanian players gifted with enough quality to make it big in the near future, the 23 years old is “on the verge” of a transfer abroad for more than six months now. Not sure if he knows it, but this is the biggest (mental) challenge of his still young career. Linked with several important names, including AC Milan, Chiriches started another season with the Romanian champions. Not a bad situation, after all, especially if the red and blue outfit qualifies for the Champions League group stage and looks likely to defend the title, but the “what if” syndrome takes full control of Romanian young talents who dream of a (big money) move abroad as soon as the media publishes the first transfer rumors.
“What if they’ll stop following / wanting me?” “What if I get injured? *knocks on wood* “What if I will never get this chance again?” Usually fueled and speculated by the agents, these questions torment only Chiriches, at this point, with Victor and Giovani Becali obeying orders received from behind bars, where their cousin, Gigi, will spend at least 3 seasons. Sorry, years. Although the quick selling of topscorer Raul Rusescu to Seville hinted that Steaua decided to cash in this summer and get the money to keep going from selling its best players, a change of strategy appears to have taken place and now Steaua gives everything to reach the group stage of the Champions League and the millions that come with this performance. The bad thing for Chiriches (and Tatarusanu, Latovlevici, Bourceanu and others…) is that there is no rush to sell and the centre-back carries a 8 million euros price tag that managed to scare away even the interested Russian clubs.
Intelligent and realistic enough, he knows he’s not worth that kind of cash. And it’s not only because of him, things might have been different if he would have been a national team player of Croatia or Serbia, not Romania… The problem is he’s now trying to live up to his asking price, at least this is what I saw in his first official games of the season. Which weren’t bad, far from it, but looking close enough you could see him desperate to stand out. A ball playing centre-back, Chiriches has also been used in the past as a full back or in central midfield (hints that he does lack the physical structure for his natural role?), but the problem is that he now looks determined to try a 3in1 role, pushing forward with the enthusiasm of an offensive fullback when he’s not stepping up from the back to dictate play from a deep position – bonuses to his defensive work in central defense.
Yes, the opponents barely posed any questions to Steaua’s defense so far, but this type of approach will soon backfire. You can see him misplacing passes in dangerous positions, you can see him gone missing from the area he was supposed to defend, you can see him (this is something new) easily unsettled by an aggressive striker who dares to hassle him. He is the elegant, ball playing centre back who can run from the back, go past five players and find the top corner of the net, the kind of rare defender maybe worth the 8 million. The problem is that Chiriches is that player once every 10-15 games and, in order to make the step abroad (my bet is Steaua will never get that money), he needs to be ” just” an excellent defender, very good on the ball, who doesn’t put the team at risk, for 10-15 matches.
In fewer words, he has to focus and focus on the right things. To improve where he needs to, not to become better at what he’s already good enough. To keep working and pushing himself now, when all seems too easy, and to enjoy himself when he moves on. And to find some patience and self confidence. That moment is just a couple of million Euros away… :)
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.