Romania’s defense held out in Athens against Greece, with Gabriel Tamas at right back, a desperate, yet effective solution. Normally, we should have seen there Alexandru Matel, the 24 years old who featured in both play-off games against Greece last November, when Romania missed out on a place at the World Cup, who went on to finish another solid season with Astra Giurgiu, winning the Romanian Cup and finishing the league in second place.
Don’t look him up in Astra’s team that managed to take out Slovan Liberec and OL on its way to the Europa League group stage! You won’t find him in the starting line-ups, not even on the bench. You can find him in exile though, training on his own, twice a day, on the pitch of Astra’s abandoned stadium from Ploiesti. He’ll be there until next summer, waiting for the last year of his contract to run out, watching international games go by at a perfect age to play and impress.
He’s 24, fully fit, but after just over 100 games for Astra, still naive enough to think that Ioan Niculae, a rich guy who likes to own business and people, would have said: “well, it’s no problem if you don’t want to renew your deal, my team can still do with the best Romanian right back for another year!”. Well, the problem with most of the wealthy guys is that they rarely regard somebody else indispensable, valuable or at least worthy of respect. Other than themselves, that is…
Well, enough bad things about the owner. With all his faults, according to his version of events, he did meet the exact terms requested by Matel’s agent for a contract extension this summer. A scenario Matel didn’t feel the need to deny, which might just make it real. He prefers to pose as the victim, but it would have been a more convincing picture if he didn’t negotiate for a new deal in the first place. And Niculae, as any other rich guy out there, has the cash to surprise you. Usually, in a positive way. At times, in ways you and your agent might dislike. Because in a story that affects not only Matel, but more people and teams, there’s more than just one bad guy involved this time around…
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.
With 12 goals scored in 22 starts, last season has finally confirmed Constantin Budescu’s talent, easy to notice since he made his senior debut, aged only 16. But having to wait for it until he turned 23 means there is a reason why Astra Giurgiu’s number 10 still gets the stick. It happened after a 10 minutes hat-trick against Viitorul Constanta, in the first round of the new season, as the club owner Ioan Niculae shocked everybody: “Budescu could turn into a great player, but he needs to get his head right. The essence of life is not a juicy stake and it doesn’t matter if you give it all during training if you drink afterwards one liter of Coke…”
The player gave a neutral response and kept his focus, which was definitely good to see and an encouraging sign for the rest of a season that could end up with an important change in his career. Budescu added a brace last weekend, in the 5-2 away win vs Corona Brasov, and now leads Liga 1’s scoring charts with 5 goals, while impressive performances have helped his team overcome the nerves of a European debut. Astra already took out Domzale and Omonia and a 3-1 away win against AS Trencin means the tie is already over. In each of these matches, the attacking midfielder managed either a goal or an assist, having 3 goals and 2 assist after five game played in Europa League’s preliminary rounds.
Eating Going at this rate will surely result in a second call-up to Romania’s senior national team, increase the interest from abroad and decrease the level of criticism he usually has to deal with from his vocal owner. Unless the later has the effect I fear, we might see this player gifted with a great right foot and a technical ability worthy of a bigger league, come winter time he might be quite far from the tasty, but heavy Christmas Romanian cuisine…
Ioan Niculae, the wealthy owner of Astra Giurgiu, has struck again. After getting rid of Bogdan Stelea without elegance and professionalism, Niculae decided to cut the wings of someone who has been near the club for the last two decades, who had stepped in at a difficult time last year and had proved himself up for the job. Two defeats in a row this year counted more than the second place Astra still sits in, with a two points advantage over the former local rival from Ploiesti, Petrolul, and Valentin Sinescu must leave.
Sinescu, a veteran assistant coach, with an elegant, fancy speech, often too complicated for both players and even journalists, was earning around 2.000 euros per month after taking charge of the first team towards the end of October 2012 and was promised to stay at least until the end of the season “because he was loyal. He’s been with us for 20 years, didn’t ran away like others!”. The words came out of Niculae’s mouth not long ago, when Astra was reaching the 2nd spot, a record for the small club that still has a big chance of making into Europe. I, for one, doubt it will happen under the command of a mediocre Marin Barbu, the guy assigned Technical Director in December and now named in place of Sinescu, Astra’s fourth coach in the current campaign…
The first experience as a coach ended badly for Bogdan Stelea, one of the members of Romania’s golden generation. The bald, strong ex-goalkeeper, nicknamed Arnold back in his playing days, lost only one game during his four-games tenure at Astra Giurgiu (former Astra Ploiesti – the club will change cities this autumn) and was probably surprised to hear that he will have to pack after a second consecutive draw against a newly promoted club.
Defeated by Steaua (3-4) after a win away at Gloria Bistrita (2-1), Astra drew 0-0 vs Viitorul Constanta and, yesterday, 1-1 vs FC Severin, two disappointing, but not terrible results, which kept the team in mid-table, its’ favorite place in the standings. Stelea took part of the blame saying there’s still a lot of work to be done for this newly assembled team, a phrase misunderstood by Ioan Niculae, the club’s owner, who went on air during the same TV show and attacked his coach for branding Astra as a… newly promoted.
Niculae – who’s the wealthiest club owner in Romania, but one who must love mediocrity! – got so carried away during the interview that he went further, in a land that has nothing to do with a professional approach in football. “If Stelea thinks Astra is a newly promoted, then he should start looking for a new place to work. We’re the worst team in Liga I. That’s it, Stelea is sacked!”. If this wasn’t enough, a look at the guests of the same TV show, Fanatik, was enough for Niculae to decide on who’s the perfect man for the job! As the camera moved to Gigi Multescu – former Astra coach who helped Petrolul Ploiesti avoid relegation at the end of last season -, Astra’s owner reacted: “Look, I’ve already found the perfect man to take over! Gigi, give me a call after the show is over, you’ve already worked with me in the past and you know that I want to build a successful team!”
Unfortunately, the show ended before a live negotiation of the contract or some transfers, done to please the new coach. We’re lucky, though! The season just started in Romania and the show runs almost every weekend, from Friday to Monday evening!