Finished in second place last year, mainly due to an obvious lack of attacking options that wasn’t solved during the winter mercato break. Looking at this summer’s transfer campaign, with no important departures and two forwards added to the squad, it seems that Unirea realized how close the team was to another league title and hopes that stability will prove a decisive advantage, if speculated to the max in the first part of the season, when the title challengers will be still trying to fit in their numerous buys and figure out which system suits them best.
Players in: Adrian Neaga (forward, 31, Neftci Baku), Petre Marin (left back/right back, 37, Steaua), Maurice Junior Dale (forward, 25, Arles-Avignon)
Players out: Daniel Munteanu (central defender, 32, Universitatea Cluj)
Unirea added just three names, but all of them are expected to help the team right away. Team manager Mihai Stoica, the man in charge when it comes to buys, had been following for months the unknown Dale (so this isn’t one of the so “popular” buys from abroad based on DVD’s and agent recommendations) and went for two other very experienced players he knows very well from his Steaua days. In spite of his age, Marin should prove not just useful, but quite important, while Neaga – a wasted talent – returns to Romania after yet another strange experience abroad, in Baku. Anyway, unless Dale turns out to be a standout player, it’s the right moment to use a cliche and say that Unirea’s best deals are keeping the likes of Arlauskis, Galamaz, Brandan and Bilasco, the guys that form the backbone of this organized and hard-working side.
- Coach: Ronny Levy (joined the club in January 2010)
- Preferred system: 4-1-4-1
- Ideal first eleven: Arlauskis – Marin, Galamaz, Maftei, Brandan – Paraschiv – Neaga, Paduretu, Apostol, Frunza – Bilasco
- Realiable subs: Fernandes (central defender), Semedo (right wing), Marinescu (attacking midfielder), Onofras (forward) Dale (forward), Rusescu (forward)
- Key player: Marius Bilasco. This player’s outstanding ability to win aerial duels in spite of his just 184 cm, to hold the ball upfront and his intelligence of brining others into play is vital to Unirea’s game. Not a natural goalscorer, Bilasco is an excellent team player, who can stay fit for an entire season, playing his heart every week.
- Underrated player: Marius Onofras. Had to choose quite an old forward ahead of Rusescu because this guy reminds me so much of Dirk Kuyt, in terms of work-rate. Able to produce wonderful goals at times, he will link-up play, run the channels, in my opinion, he’s the perfect partner for Bilasco and hopefully he’ll get more time on the pitch than he did last season.
- Liability: Vasile Maftei. As strange as it may sound, I expect Maftei to have a poor season, at his return at the heart of the defense. Moved on the right, he became a solution even for the national team, but now Levy is trying to partner him with Galamaz, the true leader of Unirea’s back four, and he might find out to be a bad idea having two coordinators in central defense and also find less appealing than in the past Maftei’s overconfidence in his technique and desire to push deep into the opposition’s half having the ball at his feet.
What to expect:
Last season, Unirea paid the price for its’ cautious approach for long periods of matches that seemed under control and I expect Levy to take more risks in his attempt to turn draws into victories. This team may not be THE favorite in the title race, but somehow it looks like the team to beat, which we usually tend to say about the reigning champions. This is a strong group, experienced, well balanced, still hungry to win trophies and I see Unirea fighting for the top spot until the very last round.
They won the league last season, after a mad campaign, when no less than six clubs fighting for the top spot. Not at all impressive in terms of tactics, Andrea Mandorlini managed to deliver (the championship was followed by the Romanian Cup) and extend his contract for one more season, when his rotation policy will make some sense, having to play in the Champions League group stage, as well. CFR tried to use its’ advantage of having cash to spend on transfer fees, not just wages for free players and their agents’ comissions, making one loan deal permanent – Piccolo – and signing Bjelanovic, an experienced striker demanded by Mandorlini, and Hora, a promising winger.
Players in: Sasa Bjelanovic (striker, 31, Vicenza), Felice Piccolo (central defender, 27, Empoli), Dominique Kivuvu (central midfielder, 23, NEC Nijmegen), Nuno Pereira Diogo (central defender, 29, FC Brasov), Ionut Rada (central defender, 28, Al Nasr), Ioan Hora (right winger, 22, Gloria Bistrita), Rafael Bastos (attacking midfielder, 25, Sporting Braga), Diego Ruiz (striker, 30, Kasimpasa, returns from loan), Rade Veljovic (striker, 24, returns from loan), Emmanuel Kone (midfielder, 24, returns from loan), Paul Batin (striker, 23, returns from loan).
Players out: Nicolae Dica (attacking midfielder, 30, loan expired), Davide Bottone (central midfielder, 24, loan expired), Claudinei Aparecido “Nei” (striker, 30, loan expired), Nelson Cabrera (central defender, 27, loan expired), Roberto De Zerbi (forward, 31, loan expired), Sixto Peralta (central midfielder, 31, released).
Initially, CFR took care of the players who were loaned last season and paid just for Piccolo’s transfer, who gets along well with team captain and defensive partner, Cadu. A good decision, just like the one to let go Nicolae Dica, an impressive name just on paper and when the TV graphics were presenting the teams. Bjelanovic is certainly an interesting buy, while Kivuvu looks also like a buy, in spite of the player’s arrival on a free transfer. The midfielder was monitorred and probably convinced earlier, so this was also a calculated move from CFR, as was the addition of Hora, who had a solid season with Gloria Bistrita and suits Mandorlini’s favorite tactical setup. Of all departures, Peralta’s could prove the biggest lost, but the bookeepers will be happier than the fans to see the man earning 375.000 Euros per year move away from Cluj. A good summer campaign from CFR’s staff, lead by club president Iuliu Muresan, who wanted to be sure that Mandorlini has what it takes and even something more to defend the title and also get a couple of results in the Champions League.
- Coach: Andrea Mandorlini (joined the club in November 2009)
- Preferred system: 4-3-3
- Ideal first eleven: Nuno Claro – Panin, Cadu, Piccolo, Edimar – Kivuvu, Muresan, Culio – Hora, Bjelanovic, Deac
- Realiable subs: Tony (right back), Leonardo Veloso (left back), Dani (central midfield), Bud, Kone, Traore (strikers)
- Key player: Gabriel Muresan. Cadu was also an option, with his ability to step up and convert penalties that bring trophies (it’s at least strange how many titles were decided through a penalty kick awarded to CFR in decisive matches!), but the anchorman is key with his ability to organize play and protect the defense, in a calm and commanding display. Excellent in the air, strong in the tackle, able to find the net with his powerful long range efforts, Muresan often leaves the impression that he dictates all that takes place on the pitch. Around him!
- Underrated player: Emmanuel Kone. The young Ivorian wide midfielder spent a year on loan with International Curtea de Arges and I was expecting to see him welcomed back and involved more in Mandorlini’s plans. Surprisingly, he’s not, even though Sven Goran Eriksson rates him higher than Lacina Traore, but CFR will do well to keep him. I’m sure he’ll prove pretty useful very soon, given the lack of solutions in midfield, if we leave aside the three regular starters.
- Liability: My first thought was to go for Mandorlini’s favorite player, Deac (a bit of controversy never hurt a blog!), but Nuno Claro’s performance from the Supercup offered me the opportunity to point out the much praised Portuguese keeper as the number one threat for CFR’s goal next season. He lacks consistency, makes poor decisions under pressure, has poor understanding with the defenders and the odd mistake comes way too often.
What to expect:
They’ve moved very well on the transfer market, have experience, morale and a quality roster, with no less than six forwards who could play anywhere in Romania and are often linked to important clubs from abroad. At this point, if CFR fails, it cannot be but Mandorlini’s fault. I admit, with this strong squad, it will be hard for him to mess it up, at least in Liga I, but my feeling is that he won’t be in Cluj next summer, celebrating. The team is still trying to adjust to his beloved 4-3-3 and played often miserably last season, with the players making the difference in CFR’s favor on their own. Or the refs! Favorites to win the league, I agree, but I doubt that everything will favor them, like the previous season.