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Manea’s record cannot hide the truth about Romania’s national team

June 2, 2014 1 comment

While others prepare for the World Cup, Romania defeated Albania 1-0 after yet another mediocre performance, in the build-up for the probably easiest ever qualifying campaign for the European Championship. Still, Victor Piturca, the manager who still has a job only because the new head of the Romanian Federation refused to pay him 300.000 Euro, the price for an early termination of his contract, stated afterwards that Romania has the ability to defeat any team. Probably by boring it to death.

Piturca will also show great proud for his incredible courage of fielding the 16 years old Cristian Manea in a friendly, meaningless match, the Viitorul defender breaking a very old record about the youngest player to feature in Romania’s senior team.

The truth is, Piturca, as always, is not really keen on rebuilding this team. He sticks pretty much to the same players and he keeps on using the national team as a stage for players who really need these caps to get new contracts at club level. It’s no coincidence that 5 out of 11 starters are currently out of contract. And I also take this opportunity to present Piturca’s starting eleven vs Albania in a different key, based on club performances in the season that recently ended.

And a bit of math: average age of this starting 11 is 26.3 years. Without Manea, it’s 27.4 years!

romania cristian maneaGoalkeeper: Tatarusanu (27) – Champion with Steaua. Will probably sign with Fiorentina, as a free agent.
Right back: Manea (16) – Youngest ever player to feature in Romania’s senior team. Avoided relegation with Viitorul in the last round of the season.
Central defender: Chiriches (24) – Not so sure about his future with Tottenham, 6th in the Premier League, in spite of some bright performances.
Central defender: Grigore (27) – Won a Europa League spot with Dinamo. Will move to Toulouse, on a free transfer.
Left back: Rat (33) – Avoided relegation with Rayo Vallecano. Currently out of contract.
Defensive midfielder: Bourceanu (29) – Contribution to Steaua’s title and Trabzonspor’s Europa League spot.
Defensive midfielder: Pintilii (29) – Champion with Steaua. Wants to leave the club.
Right winger: Nicolita (29) – Average season with St. Etienne and Nantes. Currently out of contract.
Supporting striker: Chipciu (25) – Champion with Steaua.
Left winger: Maxim (23) – Avoided relegation with VfB Stuttgart.
Striker: Marica (28) – Avoided relegation with Getafe. Currently out of contract.

No worries, I also am quite sure Piturca will be able to take Romania to Euro 2016. But mostly because this one, with 24 teams at the start, will be almost impossible to miss.

Chiriches – the only quality Romanian immigrant who left Liga 1 last summer

January 5, 2014 Leave a comment

Back in September, I made a Top 10 list of the Liga 1 exports in the summer of 2013. A list topped by Vlad Chiriches, who just had set a new record in terms of transfer fees with his move to Tottenham, a list that now, with half of season gone, deserves a second look. So let me walk you through the first five months spent by 10 ex-Liga 1 “stars” at their new clubs, in stronger leagues, competitive and professional environments, under pressure. Those who love to promote the Romanian league should look away :)

TOP 10

chirichesThe most valuable, both in terms of quality and price, turned out to be also the one who delivers from the start. Vlad Chiriches, the ex Steaua defender and current national team captain, made a bright start in the toughest league, in an ambitious team packed with quality players, winning over the fans and making commentators like Clive Tyldesley say recently that he’s “a fine advert for Romanian immigrant labor”. Irony aside, he is indeed. And it’s enough to look below him in my Top 10 list…

With the exception of Portugese right back Ivo Pinto, who impressed with Dinamo Zagreb (although I’d place the Croatian Prva HNL below our Liga 1 in terms of competitiveness), there is nobody else who made the switch easy, with good results also on the pitch, not just in their bank accounts.

Ok, signing Denis Alibec was a gamble from Bologna, as the striker revived by Gheorghe Hagi and his club, Viitorul Constanta, disappointed upon his return to Serie A. He featured for just 2 minutes in the first part of the season, against mighty Juventus, but that was just a desperate use of a forward with good feet, but a mind that still looks unable to focus on football. Two other Romanian players moved to Italy last summer and both need (and unlike Alibec who is close to a transfer to Astra Giurgiu) and will have more time to adjust and prove themselves. Alexe struggles with struggling Sassuolo, featuring 6 times in the league, but just once as a starter, while Nica got a red card in his second and last appearance in Serie A for Atalanta.

Life isn’t easier in Ligue 1 either, where Dan Nistor and Aurelian Chitu started just once in half of season, each with a handful of appearances as substitutes for Evian and Valenciennes, respectively. The biggest disappointment though came from Raul Rusescu, who joined FC Sevilla as the top scorer of the Romanian league, but already left La Liga, moving on loan to Sporting Braga after a total of 7 appearances and 3 goals, but only 64 mintues of football in the Spanish top flight…

rusescu

With Fatai unable to feature more for Club Brugge, in spite of a bright start (scored against Anderlecht in his first game), and Herea looking average in a league that, in theory, should have allowed him to impress, we can draw the line: just 2 out of 10 players stepped into their new clubs and claimed a place in the first eleven.

Not at all surprising is the fact that we’re talking about two of the most expensive deals. It might look strange that a proven scorer like Rusescu failed at Sevilla, but in fairness it was the Spanish club who got it wrong and rushed to gamble of a player that didn’t look ready for them! Saying that the Romanian was going to replace Alvaro Negredo was a (good) joke and the 25 years old’s signature was followed by those of Carlos Bacca and Kevin Gameiro. And while these two got playing time, Rusescu was following an intense fitness regime to help him lose weight and gain the pace and agility needed in La Liga…

On the disappointing side I’d put Alexe’s struggle, given his intelligence and first team experience, but he did join a newly promoted club and he’s the type of forward who can “enjoy” quite long periods of indifferent form, risks both himself and the club should have taken into account. Hopefully, he’ll have the time and the opportunities to come good, just like Nica, who has the fortune of being in a youth-friendly club…

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Romania needs a miracle on Tuesday night, but nobody can make it happen

November 18, 2013 2 comments

We are two goals away from the Brazilian World Cup. And we’re playing at home, pushed by 55.000 souls. It doesn’t look that bad, really, yet there’s an overwhelming feeling that everything was lost in Athens and we’re only waiting for a painfully long confirmation, in Bucharest, on a cold Tuesday night that has so little to do with what awaits the winner in Rio, in the summer of 2014. I’ve not jumped ships, I have been pessimistic about Romania’s chances all along, but in Romanian. Now it’s time to be in English as well, so here are a few thoughts on why this now or never game has so little chances to finish with a dream result.

The coach

imagePiturca got it all wrong in Athens, although the team got the away goal that might even prove decisive in the end. Afraid to take any risks with his team

selection and match strategy, unaware that the key absences (Tatarusanu, Chiriches, Pintilii) weaken precisely the defense he decided to put so much emphasis on once again, unable to react to the opposition’s tactics of outnumbering our central midfielders with the use of both wide forwards and opening up highways on both flanks for the advancing fullbacks, the coach was left to blame poor marking at set plays and a first goals scored from an offside position.

Now, he gets a hand with his team selection, as Tatarusanu and a masked Chiriches are back, but the loss of two central midfielders (Bourceanu and Lazar) will pose new questions to his ability to select a winning 11. On the other hand, he faces again the type of game he hates and never propery prepared his team for: the one that he’s supposed to win by opening up the opposition’s defense.

The team

There’s an obvious lack of quality as far as players are concerned, I’ve said it before, we don’t really deserve to go to Brazil with this lot, but there’s the feeling that blame rests on the Piturca’s shoulders once again, both with the lot he assembles every time and with the choices he makes when it comes to picking the starting eleven.

Let’s start with Athens.

He picked Lobont in goal ahead of Pantilimon (according to his selection, the Manchester City shot stopper is Romania’s fourth option, although he recently got the nod – albeit temporarily – ahead of England’s number 1). The veteran from AS Roma, with no official games under his belt, no hunger and little authority, failed to make up for the team’s defensive errors and can only get praise for stopping Greece from netting the fourth goal.

In central midfield, he paired Bourceanu with Cocis, not Lazar, losing chemistry and technical ability, mocking an entire country with his choice and shocking Cocis himself, who stated afterwards that he never expected to start this game.

Upfront, behind Marica, he used Torje on the right, who was a regular starter in this campaign, but lost touch with regular football at club level, picked Stancu ahead of Maxim and, as usual, started with Tanase on the left. Picking Stancu ahead of Maxim, who’s one of the most in-form players at club level and has been a hit in the Bundesliga since he joined Stuttgart, is the main criticism Piturca faced during and after the match. I think that’s not the best approach to the matter, and not just because Stancu scored the away goal that still has a (slim) chance to make the difference. He does fit the game strategy Piturca picked for this game, he has a good fitness and form level, has not played that bad recently for the national team. Actually, Stancu deserved to start, so I would say that the best line of criticism is this: leaving Maxim out was a mistake, as he can just as well play on either flanks, where both Torje and Tanase have disappointed, both before and during the Athens encounter.

Let’s move to the second leg, where Romania is expected to start with Tatarusanu in goal, a back four of Matel, Goian, Chiriches and Rat, Cocis and Gardos in central midfield, Nicolita, Maxim and Stancu behind Marica.

We get back two players that are vital for our chances to keep a clean sheet, but we are weaker than ever where often a football match is won, as the absence of Bourceanu and Lazar (both suspended) forces Piturca to do a rare thing for him: think outside of the box. The pair Cocis – Gardos is odd to say the least. Gardos has played there years ago, but he’s a central defender. Cocis has played there days ago :), but in truth he’s the type of all round midfielder that can play everywhere, but is yet to find his best role on the pitch. And he’s 30 years old… They never played together either and this pairing puts Piturca on the spot for yet another reason: why did he call up Ovidiu Hoban – who is average and out of form, let’s be honest – if he doesn’t find him up for this game? He is a defensive midfielder, the only available defensive midfielder, yet he’s not Piturca’s third choice, he’s his fifth!

Romania needs Maxim's skill and creativity to open up the Greek defense.

Romania needs Maxim’s skill and creativity to open up the Greek defense.

We move further up the pitch and finally find Maxim among the expected starters, deployed behind Marica, which pushes Stancu wide to the left and pushes Tanase further left, on the bench :). The pressure will be huge for Maxim, whose trickery and cheeky backheel touches have produced nothing but disappointment so far for the national team, on the rare occasions he was give the nod. Yes, let’s be honest and say that Maxim plays better for Stuttgart than for Romania, and let’s stay honest: it happens because Stuttgart tries to play football, while Romania only tries to stop the opposition from playing football. Now, all eyes are on him and Piturca himself showed once again his terrible man management skills, by saying “Maxim will have the chance to prove me wrong in the second led”, a pathetic and useless attempt to divert the blame for not offering his most talented attacking player more than 5 minutes in Athens.

The prediction

It’s an all or nothing game, with an ideal scenario of scoring twice and keeping a clean sheet. Not an impossible feat, but a highly unlikely one given all the above arguments. Greece has not impressed me – they also got punished from a set play, in spite of a huge aerial advantage -, but I can’t see Romania able to turn things around. Everything looks lined up against us, from tradition to deal with such games, to the quality of the roster, the obvious limits of the coach and the lack of solutions to line up a competitive starting eleven even in perfect conditions, not only now, when so many problems will influence Piturca’s choices. To be honest, in spite of my belief that we don’t deserve to go to Rio, I would be obviously disappointed if we’d miss out on yet another final tournament, but I’m gutted that nothing will change for us while the current coach remains in charge. And, according to his contract, that’s at least until 2016…

Over 20 players from Liga I moved this summer to a better championship!

September 5, 2013 1 comment

It was a summer to remember for Romanian clubs (although the newspapers haven’t noticed it just yet…)! With Chiriches finally moved to Tottenham, we have a new record transfer fee paid for a Liga I player. We also have 5 players signed by Serie A clubs, 3 gone to Ligue 1 and 1 in La Liga, none other than last season’s top scorer. Teams from Belgium, Croatia and Switzerland – good European stepping stones – have made their picks, with Russia and Turkey paying good money to either clubs or players (or both) to sign no less than 7 established footballers. And Steaua decided to keep some in-demand players to make it into the Champions League’s group stage, otherwise the numbers would have been bigger and the figures even more impressive. Below, you can find my top ten transfers of the summer, which is of course debatable, but I’ve tried to filter the twenty-something important moves using as filter the quality and potential of the player in question, age, level of the buying club and level of the league he’s going to.

TOP 10

I, for one, don’t remember a more prolific transfer window in recent years, in terms of fees paid for Liga I’s top names and number of exports, especially to top leagues from Western Europe. Is it just a coincidence or the Romanian league has gained a better reputation? If this would be the case, then we’d have another premiere on our hands, with the clubs’ performances in the internal and European competitions drawing attention, not the exposure offered by Romania’s national team(s). Take Gheorghe Grozav’s case, who was heavily promoted by Victor Piturca and only got a late move to Terek Grozny. Or Ciprian Marica’s, who is struggling to find himself a new club, just like Gabriel Tamas, released by WBA, or Gabriel Torje, who had troubles convincing another club to loan him, a full transfer being out of the question…

Do we have stronger clubs? I can only think of exceptions. Is Liga I more competitive? It surely was two-three years ago – remember the days when Steaua, Dinamo, Rapid, CFR and Vaslui were fighting to get the title from Otelul Galati -, but that race got less and less tensed, with Dinamo’s and Rapid’s financial trouble, and CFR’s and Vaslui’s loss of investment/interest. Do we sign / promote better players? I’d say mainly by accident, considering the amateur take on player recruitment and lack of funds, knowledge and dedication allocated to the youth sector (of course, I will keep Hagi’s Academy out of this!).

Having the chance to see most of the European leagues in the past couple of years, given my assignments in scouting, I think the answer to the question of attractiveness gets a positive note only when related to the level of leagues from Croatia, Serbia, Czech Republic, Poland, not to mention Slovenia, Hungary or Bulgaria. The gap is rather discrete, I must say, and a good player from Liga I is tested in an equally if not more competitive environment than in the mentioned countries, making him prepared enough for a step abroad, in the eyes of visiting scouts. Add some good runs in Europe, like CFR’s or Steaua’s and we’re only kept back by reputation. One that surely doesn’t speak in Romania’s favor, but can be changed by each and everyone who gets the chance to play abroad…

Can a tough season help Chiriches toughen up?

July 21, 2013 Leave a comment

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.

image

“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… :)

Steaua’s 24th title: never in doubt, now a certainty

Five rounds before the end of the season and during the weekend that most of Romania celebrates Easter – obviously, a sign from God for Gigi Becali – Steaua is crowned champion once again, after a very long wait, a period which exposed all the faults of Becali’s dictatorial regime. Nothing radical changed in his hands-on and loud approach, it was just one of those years when everything fell into place.

rusescuThe team

Steaua’s spine became finally strong enough. From the keeper Tatarusanu, through the complementary pair of defenders, Szukala (great in the air) – Chiriches (excellent on the ground), the warrior-captain Bourceanu and to the free scoring Rusescu, finding the ideal eleven was always easy for Laurentiu Reghecampf. Nevermind the problems at right back, the poor form of Tanase or the struggle to identify a reliable centre-forward, with Latovlevici’s energy from left back, Pintilii’s discipline in central midfield and Chipciu’s quick runs from the second line of attack, there was always too much quality for a mediocre competition like Liga 1. And for those who doubted and argued, biased or not, Steaua delivered in Europe beyond expectations.

The coach

I remember one of Reghecampf’s first games as a coach, as he came to Ploiesti with FC Snagov for a match in the 2nd division. Someone else was officially in charge of the team, but everyone knew that Steaua’s and the national team’s former right back was running things. So, at the end of the game, when he gathered around all the players on the pitch and sent them for a few laps, he was the one who had to deal with the irony of the few fans that stayed behind. “You should have made them run before the final whistle!”, they shouted, but the young coach didn’t answer then. He did it in the following years, helping  Concordia Chiajna pull out a miracle and avoid relegation in the second half of the previous season, but also during his first campaign in charge of Romania’s best supported club. Because his players do run. And, if this can be assigned to his German fitness coach, nobody can deny that the team is well organized, moves the ball quickly, knows how to react when cornered and can interpret different tactics and scenarios because of him. Besides that, he won quickly the affection of fans and players and, even more important, had the needed diplomacy to deal with Becali’s changing mood and hands-on approach.

reghe mmThe staff

He might be hugely unpopular among the fans of every other team in the country, but a lot of them would secretly want someone like Steaua’s Mihai Stoica in their club. His return to the Bucharest club – although he once said that he’d rather live on the streets, like a bum, than work again with Gigi Becali – has ensured the following: the team and the coach had protection from the owner’s often brutal intrusions, as well as the attacks coming from the opposition and some of the journos. “Becali’s little brother” has seen the job done and his presence has surely influenced the club’s performance and results this season, for which he was ready to go all the way. At times, way beyond the boundaries of respect, fair play, common sense. Outrageous for the rival fans and neutral spectators, admirable for Steaua’s supporters, MM’s behavior spearheaded and eventually won the psychological battle that goes on during a season…

The future

Speaking of arrogance and offensive behavior, the club was quick to announce years of domination in Romanian football, but, for the good of the game, the level of the league will somehow manage to rise again at a decent level. This season, it was all too easy, with Dinamo and Rapid tormented by changes and financial struggle, CFR Cluj focused only on Europe and mediocre in Liga 1 and Vaslui without direction and the usual ambition from their wealthy owner. Plus, there’s a huge amount of uncertainty at the moment for the new champions: Becali’s yet to decide if it’s wise to cash in on some names or really go for it in the Champions League; Reghecampf has impressed and wants to play hard ball with Becali, having offers from abroad on stand-by; a number of key players (Tatarusanu, Chiriches, Latovlevici, Bourceanu, Rusescu) are on the shortlist of better clubs for some time now; the recent appointment of Daniel Stanciu in the club has fueled the not so silent war going on when it comes to selling and buying new players.

This final point could be the cause for more harm to Steaua than any other Romanian club could produce next season, but at the same time this state of alert, the constant tension can lead to good things. Keeping in mind that everyone involved in it keeps the club’s best interest above their own. Which, to be honest, rarely happens, and not only in football…

Can Steaua leave their off-the-field problems and get back to playing football?

February 12, 2013 Leave a comment

It was all perfect back in 2012! Steaua dominated the league, a reminder of the good old days, and qualified for another European spring, having the arrogance guts to take Ajax lightly and speak of the possible double with Chelsea in the Europa League. As January passed by without anything spectacular happening, other than the usual game of asking unrealistic prices for players like Chiriches, Tanase or Rusescu, things got hotter as the Amsterdam trip came into sight.

regheA huge betting scandal involving Laurentiu Reghecampf kept the media busy, as the young coach was placed at the heart of a possible fixed game that took place in the 1.Bundesliga, when he was playing for Energie Cottbus. It proved big enough to make the Bucharest side react “in style”, shutting down all access during the team’s second training camp.

As things weren’t bad enough, Steaua’s owner scored a hat-trick of legal issues in the past few days, as his name featured in three cases and at least one of them did some damage, as Becali received a 3-year sentence with conditional suspension of execution for trying to make justice for himself by forcefully retaining the people that had tried to steal his car.

All these issues seriously damaged Steaua’s image and it might have also affected the team’s morale and focus ahead of the first official match of the year. If they also diverted the attention from the on-the-pitch problems that Reghecampf had to address during this long winter break, the fans optimistic of having a strong chance to go through might have a few surprises on Thursday.

Steaua has defensive problems: at right back there’s a dilemma whether to use new signing Cornel Rapa from the off or still improvise with Alex Chipciu, the quick winger that had to cover the role a few times in the past; Lukasz Szukala, who would have probably started in central defense suffered, a broken nose during a friendly game and he’s out, so the central pair will be formed by Vlad Chiriches and Florin Gardos. Both are young and, judging by the recent unconvincing performances of the highly rated Chiriches, inconsistent. Should I also mention the indifferent form of starting goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu? Or move upfield and remind of the absence of Cristian Tanase – suspended – which has created little debate, but the right footed left midfielder will surely be missed.

Steaua still thinking of a double with Chelsea? At the moment, it seems more likely to happen in autumn, in the Champions League…

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