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Three names to watch in Craiova: Mangia, Ivan and Baluta

July 15, 2017 Leave a comment

Craiova won comfortably against Iasi, 2-0, in the opening game of Liga 1’s 100th edition. It was Mangia’s first official game in charge and it was exciting to watch. Changes were expected, although the squad is pretty much the same as last year, and the Italian’s work on the tactical side should get the deserved praise, as I don’t expect many teams in the league to actually have a game plan into place even three months from now…

Often used on the wing, Craiova’s highest rated player, Ivan, was sent upfront, supported by two quick and skilful attacking midfielders, Baluta and Gustavo, one breaching the lines through the middle, the other starting his actions from a wide role, but always aimed inside. The right side belongs to an attacking full-back who overlaps with consistency, the other flank to Bancu, both being able to get crosses in at a good rate. Baluta, the new number 10, stole the show. The fresh international scored the opening goal with a header, provided the assist for 2-0 and later on hit the crossbar with another header. Not bad at all from the 1,70 m player, who was struggling to add an end product to his runs last season, mostly used as a winger. The 23 years old looks set for a promising season, but not all eyes are on him.

Ivan is 20, wears the armband and surely has a more appealing profile, and this season – assuming he’s still in Craiova by the end of the transfer period – will have a big influence on his future career.

Screen Shot 2017-07-15 at 16.28.18Expected to move abroad for more than a year now, he’s yet to convince a foreign club to table at least 3 million Euros. His stats are just one of the issues. Yet to score 10 goals in a season in a mediocre league, Ivan only confirmed in the first appearance of the new season that he needs to improve various aspects of his game, missing again a clear cut chance only because he tried to score a beautiful goal, instead of a, well, goal. By taking him off without second thoughts after 67 minutes, Mangia showed that he can do this talented player more good than a transfer abroad at this age, in a more competitive and demanding environment. Ivan is not ready for that, mentally and tactically. Let’s talk straight: he is not a winger, as previous coaches tried to convince everyone, including the player himself. Ivan always said he enjoyed to attack spaces and what every other coach did? They offered him the easy way out: ok, you’ll play wide, score the 2nd or 3rd goal on the break in the 90th minute, and with your great set of physical attributes, age and potential, the transfer will come. So far (not) so good. Ivan is still here, he cannot become a good winger in a top league and basically he has learned next to nothing in the past two years about playing upfront, centrally, where his future lies.

Screen Shot 2017-07-15 at 15.48.58

Mangia just told him the following things: he’ll have to play as a 9; he’ll have to play better as a 9 than yesterday; he’ll have to take his chances and stop being so wasteful in front of the goal; he can’t take for granted his place in the 1st eleven, even though he’s the captain, the most valuable asset of the club and one of the few quality players in the side. Basically, the Italian just told a 20 years old who thinks everything will fall into place in his career what he would have learned, the hard way, in his first experience abroad. Ivan should swallow his pride, get his head down and learn / work. This season under Mangia could do him a lot of good. If he gets to play it, of course. It’s only July 15…

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The incomplete preview for the next season of Romanian football

July 8, 2017 2 comments

The season starts on July 15. The transfer period closes on September 4, so we can expect still plenty of action on the market. There will be an almost 3 months long winter break, in which normally other massive changes of personnel take place. The number of points gained during the regular season will be cut in half, so the playoffs can see the Top 6 making the final sprint in a totally different shape than anyone could realistically anticipate at this point. That’s why it makes more sense to just have a look at how the best equipped and most ambitious clubs will line up at the start of Liga 1’s 100th edition…

FCSB (the club formerly known as Steaua):

Having lost the two championships played under the current format, a third defeat looks catastrophic. But feeling sympathetic towards Gigi Becali just doesn’t sound right, in spite of his willingness to spend money in the market. He’s doing it without fully relying on professional advice and his judgment is often clouded by pride, arrogance and an over-confidence in his football knowledge. He has the power to get every (half of) year almost everything he wishes, from the best Romanian prospects to the consistent performers in Liga 1, but more often will weaken one of his rivals than strengthen his club or prove the right fit for his team. His current team is very strong in midfield and attack, has a long bench, but the defensive options are mediocre. He also went for a new coach, but the general feeling is that the team’s former no 10 Nicolae Dica was chosen more for his obedience than his innovative ideas or coaching record. Still, expect FCSB to go all the way, the team is strong and can become even stronger, although some doubts about Becali’s coaching ability should persist ūüôā

Champion with Unirea Urziceni, Petrescu returns to Romania after some odd and unsuccessful spells abroad.

CFR Cluj:

A new ownership, strong investment to clear debt and massively overhaul the squad and the signing of a proven coach like Dan Petrescu surely turn once again CFR into a serious title contender. This is the club FCSB should / will fear the most. Petrescu knows exactly what he’s doing and what he needs, while the board has a proven record and a broad perspective over the market. They’ve already signed a dozen of new players, yes, there will be a lack of cohesion in the first part of the season, but if things go right, in a couple of months CFR will look a lot like Unirea Urziceni: a very experienced outfit, very well balanced, whose main assets will be mental, tactical and physical. At this point, I’d tip them to become a dominant team and wouldn’t be surprised to force FCSB into another handicap start in the play-offs.

Dinamo:

Contra’s arrival just before the start of last season’s playoffs produce an incredible effect, but it was all down to the former international’s excellent motivational ability. It will take more than that to really challenge for more than a place in Europe, mostly because Dinamo’s has a rather minimalistic approach on the market. The ownership’s reluctance to spend on transfer fees and big(ger) salaries is well-known, so the feeling is that Contra, who lost two key players already in Dielna and Palic, will have to perform miracles to mount a title challenge, unless re-enforcement is on the way.

CSU Craiova:

There’s a new, intriguing name on the bench: Devis Mangia. A new stadium should be completed within a year and Craiova – who rely on a passionate fan base – could get a major boost right before the play-offs. All the important players have stayed put so far – although the likes of Ivan and Baluta have the potential to attract bids – some interesting additions like Roman and Barbut came in, but the squad still feels too light to go all the way.

Viitorul:

Last season’s champions have surprised with the addition of some very experienced players, but hopefully Hagi won’t turn his kindergarten into a retirement house. He’s surely hoping that this strategy will help him make a good start in Europe, as the important clubs seem to remain reluctant in submitting the kind of bids he was expecting for hot prospects like Coman or Nedelcu, after their displays in Liga 1. It’s going to be almost impossible to repeat last season’s feat, but an European spot remains on the cards and in Hagi’s plans for the campaign set to start on July 15.

Buying the Liga 1 topscorer? Not such a good idea…

We might not be 100% about the name of the league winner, considering the fact – and it’s a fact now – that Gigi Becali is such a poor loser that he contested Viitorul’s win and we’ll be expecting from Lausanne a confirmation that FCSB was simply poorly managed and coached and had a bunch of over-paid under-performers instead of a team. But it will come.

What we know for sure is the name of Liga 1’s best scorer in 2016/17: Azdren Llullaku. The Albanian re-invented forward has netted an impressive 16 goals playing for Gaz Metan Medias, a small club that finished the regular season in the play-out zone. What’s also impressive is that Llulaku did all this in half of season, which also got him a contract with Astana.

Now the less impressive stuff: no other player from Liga I managed to at least get close to him, with six more months to play against mostly mediocre opposition. Bud (CFR Cluj), Chitu (Viitorul), Cristea (Iasi), Nemec (Dinamo) and Alibec (FCSB) finished their season with 11 goals. Chitu was the champions’ best scorer, while the experienced internationals Nemec and Alibec fought until the last round for the title. Pathetic return. It speaks volumes about the lack of both real quality and consistency, about the rather chronic inability to play positive, attacking football in Liga I, even at the very top. There are facts to back this up, just think about the last quality no 9 produced by this competition. What’s the first name that springs to mind?

One can also argue that even topping the goalscoring charts in Romania isn’t such a feat. Basically, it offers no guarantees. Let’s leave aside Llullaku, although his record so far (1 goal in 16 appearances for Astana) would only offer the most recent proof of my argument, and let’s have a look at what happened with previous 5 top scorers from Liga 1:

2015/16: Ioan Hora¬†– 19 goals for Pandurii – Hora signed for Konyaspor, who had finished 3rd in Turkey’s SuperLig and was looking to strengthen the team for their Europa League campaign. The Romanian – same profile as Llullaku, a winger who suddenly found his scoring boots when asked to lead the line in a counter-attacking team – struggled badly in his first season; never a starter in the league, scored just once, a useless 90th minute goal in a 3-0 home win, 3 rounds before the end of the season. He proved more useful in Cup games though, scoring twice, but also converting a penalty in the final’s shootout, after he came on the pitch in the 119th minute…

2014/15: Gregory Tade – 18 goals for CFR Cluj – Immediately signed by Steaua, in a classic Becali move, Tade struggled badly in a team that requires a case study, being the most feared and respected by opponents, often superior and always attacking, but so rarely able to produce a prolific 9… Anyway, the French striker only netted 4 goals in 24 games played in Liga I, a return very similar to the one produced in his first season with CFR. But patience is not a virtue you can find in Bucharest and Tade had to endure some rough treatment before he was able to move away and he only found a deal with Qatar SC, under the command of another Romanian coach..

2013/14: Liviu Antal – 15 goals for FC Vaslui – Another prolific winger, another one season wonder. Sold again to Turkey, like Hora, Antal scored once in nine games for Genclerbirligi. Quickly dispatched firstly on loan to Beitar and then to Hapoel Tel Aviv, netted a total of 5 goals in Israel’s top flight for the two clubs, in two seasons. Hapoel was also left with the option to send him on loan and after two halves of season with Pandurii, Antal found again a decent club to sign for: CFR Cluj. His stats this year? 7 appearances – 0 goals.

2012/13 Raul Rusescu – 21 goals for Steaua – Steaua’s last forward to finish first in the goalscoring chart was subject of a surprising and exciting move – at first – in the summer of 2013. Sevilla paid a hefty fee for him, but Sevilla was desperate and Rusescu’s summer smile was gone after a couple of months of more quality signings from the Spanish outfit, who played him just once and sent him on loan first to Braga (5 goals in 13 games) and then to Steaua (4 goals in 21 appearances). Now with Osmanlispor, Rusescu just finished a poor season, after a rather promising start in 2015/16, when he netted 9 goals in 24 appearances in the league.

2011/12 Wesley – 27 goals for FC Vaslui – The Brazilian was a hit; probably the best foreign player to have featured in Liga I. Scored 7 in 16 in his debut season, 12 in 31 in the second, 13 in 32 in the third, before being crowned the league’s top scorer in 2012. But he was not a 9, he was a gifted 10 who, at times, under some clever coaches, played even in front of the back four. His quality though never affected his output and, after 61 league goals in 113 appearances for Vaslui, the ageing Brazilian went to Al-Hilal, scoring more goals, but also a deserved big contract.

Everyone is weaker as Liga I restarts today, but Becali‚Äôs club could be this season‚Äôs biggest loser

February 3, 2017 Leave a comment

Razvan Marin left the surprising league leaders Viitorul, second placed Steaua lost two key players in Popa and Tosca, while Craiova parted ways with team captain and regular left-back Vatajelu, managing to resist attempts from abroad for their highest asset, Ivan. Heavily weakened from the chasing pack comes out Dinamo, who sold Rotariu and Lazar and finally parted ways with Gnohere, all three attacking men that will be difficult to replace in a team that is yet to be sure of its place in the playoffs, with former champions Astra knocking at their door, in spite of all the torments that probably would have killed any other club by now.

liga-1-standings

From a sporting point of view, everyone comes out weaker from this long winter break, considering that only Steaua had ‚Äď as always – both the money and desire to re-invest, bringing in a lot of firepower in Alibec and Gnohere, two physical strikers who promise to brush aside weak and deep defensive lines, but who could need time to adjust. Leaving aside their proven quality in the league, shall we try to go back until we find a regular scorer for Steaua in the no 9 role?

The competition will be weaker, no doubt, but the teams that will make it into the playoffs should attack the final stretch of this league that suddenly became interesting again for European clubs from fairly even positions. There’s a lot of ambition in Craiova, but their coach has rarely managed to keep his team (and often his own job) for an entire season, in spite of often very promising spells. Gaz Metan was the surprise package of the first part of the season, but they’ve lost their main scoring threat and the insolvency that will keep them from playing in Europe is anything but good motivation to keep going.

But what about Viitorul, who sit in first place and don’t have an owner capable of messing with the coach’s head, Hagi covering both roles and maybe regretting he’s not able anymore to offer himself some minutes, at least at the end of games that might need a magic left footed touch. Well, they’ve done the right thing by letting Marin go and fingers crossed for the midfielder’s success with Standard Liege, as the Academy’s products really need some good advertising abroad. Hopefully, another youngster will take Marin’s place, although signing Nelut Rosu (who had shown some promise, but that was more than a year ago and playing for a side fighting against relegation) looks a lot like the acquisition of Purece whom Hagi promised to get to national team level. Apparently, it’s trickier than expected to integrate Romanian players with rather questionable tactical knowledge and technical ability, effects of poor work through done at youth level, but also in their first years among the seniors, than to integrate a young player raised properly at his own Academy. Why is he sometimes going round this otherwise natural and key step for his own success I do not know, but recently it happened more and more often, with both Romanian and foreign players whom he’s been trying without luck to transform into influential figures…

No prediction from me, but hopefully Viitorul and Craiova can take into the new year their ability to win points often by taking initiative and playing attacking football, with Steaua’s aura losing its strength even more in recent months. The pressure is on and, come summer, Becali’s club could lose both a title that nobody was looking able to challenge at the beginning of the season and its famous name.

Razvan Marin joins Standard Liege. A good move for everyone involved!

January 20, 2017 2 comments

Fans of Standard might know little about him, but what’s important from them is that the club’s board made a smart, justified (it was about time, right?) move by going for his signature. Marin is the brightest and most consistent young player in Liga 1,¬†is younger and a lot cheaper than Anderlecht’s huge transfer from the same competition six month ago (Stanciu going at 23, with less re-selling potential for an absurd transfer fee) and will find in Belgium a competition that will challenge and help him develop.

Linked previously with clubs like Zenith, Roma or Fiorentina, Marin will find with Standard the much needed playing time at this age and in his first adventure abroad and I have a feeling that everyone involved in this deal can look back smiling to this very moment in a couple of years.

razvan-marin

Having just lost Trebel (25), Standard nailed a central midfielder with a rather similar profile, who can add more going forward, but who needs to progress physically and mentally to reach similar levels in the defensive phase of the game, especially if Standard will continue to use a 4-4-2.

Ideally suited for a 4-3-3, Marin can adjust to a midfielder pairing in a 4-4-2 or in a 4-2-3-1 with a physically strong number 6 able to allow him the freedom to move forward and also protect the back four. Just to be clear, the Romanian international shows good work ethic and will play his part defensively, being quite a tireless runner and showing discipline in tracking back, pressing and cutting off passing and running channels in his own half, but he’s not the most aggressive tackler you’ll meet and in terms of vigour and ability to make successful challenges defensively 1v1, well, there’s some homework for Standard’s coaching staff right there…

If allowed to express himself, Marin will prove quite influential in developing attacks with his passing and movement range and you’re in for a surprise when you’ll see this guy take his chance on goal from long range… I won’t spoil it for you. Erm, ok, maybe just a little bit ūüôā

To conclude, Standard gets a 20 years old with a lot of first team experience,who has made an impact in Romania’s senior national team and has every reason to add caps to his name with consistency, who is already on the radar of some big clubs¬†and¬†who was signed at a realistic price, which ensures quite a big margin for profit if Marin does impress.

Marin, on the other hand, has no reason to be down for missing out on the speculated transfers; he takes a step forward, will play in a league that posed problems to fellow internationals Chipciu and Stanciu at Anderlecht, both more experienced than him, and won’t need to fight the same level of doubt when scouts will be sent to (re)asses his level and potential.

He’ll get to¬†learn, to play and to taste football abroad with all the challenges that have seen similar Romanian talents waste important years in bigger leagues and clubs. He has the mentality and ability to see this through and be more prepared for what everyone thinks is his future.

We should see some more happy faces in Constanta, where Hagi just nailed the biggest transfer fee received for a single Academy product. Leaving aside the much needed cash, which is in the region speculated even if Marin would have really gone to the above mentioned clubs from Italy or Russia, he desperately needs a player to go from Viitorul and succeed abroad. Having done some business with Italian clubs, trying to place youngsters in their Primavera sides,¬†he saw Chitu return from Valenciennes, Iancu come back from Turkey (after an initial bad spell with Steaua), Manea on the sidelines in Mouscron.¬†In Romania, he can only get some cash from Steaua, so he¬†could do with some sort of¬†proof that his players are ready¬†for the next step and can do it away from the best setup and facilities that youngsters can find around here. I surely wish that for he’ll find the means and motivation to keep on working just as before at his Academy, just as I wish we finally see more Romanian players¬†make it abroad, away from a league that’s slowly dying…

Can Romania play attacking football? Daum might be optimistic, but not suicidal…

September 4, 2016 Leave a comment

The image of Daum taking notes on Liga 1 players in the unglamorous stands from Voluntari or Chiajna had a wow factor in the first rounds of the new season. It said two things:

  1. his time to evaluate eligible players before the first official game of the qualifying campaign was extremely limited.
  2. the time when we knew *without even looking* who can should play in the national team was gone.

This is one of the big advantages of bringing in a foreign coach. If he’s serious and dedicated, but also aware that a change of approach and an objective reevaluation of things is needed for a team that finally played again at a final tournament thanks mainly to a more permissive format and to a weak qualifying group, he will really look at things and people. He will surely not like what he finds, but at least he’ll be operating with fresh data and ideas, leaving the past behind.

For a few days now, Romanian media reports of an attacking philosophy, presenting¬†offensive line-ups and quoting positive, optimistic statements about how the team will play. Come match day and the brave, attacking predicted line-up features Sapunaru and Hoban in front of the back four and a 4-2-3-1 and the always out of place striker Stancu on the left wing. Hard to call that either offensive or innovative‚Ķ But it’s not the official starting eleven, so surely¬†better to wait and see.

Daum is experienced enough though to look for a result in the opening game, rather than attempt to impress with an attacking game that he had little time to implement, both tactically and mentally. Even if he plans to change Romania’s style, he needs more than just a few days and, as you can imagine, not everyone was happy to see him take over this role and a defeat against Montenegro would surely turn on the heat and the hate. Let’s not forget that key elements like Tatarusanu, Chiriches and Pintilii are also missing, but it’s good to see that the search for a new left-back has begun, now with veteran Razvan Rat is out of the picture. You can also see young, fresh faces in the squad, like Marin and Benzar from Viitorul or Dinamo’s Dorin Rotariu. I’m puzzled by the call-up received by Enache, who has been awful at right back lately and I do hope the media got it wrong about the tactical setup and selection of his first eleven, but I’m hopeful it’s only a matter of time until Daum understands who’s reliable or at least who has a chance of fitting his ideas and playing style in the future.

Trickier than in appearance, tonight’s game will be a test not for Daum’s selection and ability to quickly implement new ideas, but also for our understanding of the game, of the time needed to change an approach that has stayed with us for decades. We have praised Iordanescu for making a great counter-attacking team when he had Hagi, Sabau, Gica Popescu, Dan Petrescu or Ilie Dumitrescu at his disposal; I find it quite funny that people read so much into Daum’s words of playing a different football and expect this still mediocre national team to attack and impress with the likes of Grigore, Hoban, Achim and Chipciu…

Steaua’s old faces, for a brand new league title

December 28, 2015 Leave a comment

If I’d be the owner of a Romanian club I’d choose Reghecampf as a coach. Why? Because he is the best!

Those were Laurentiu Reghecampf’s words in May 2014, when he was leaving Steaua after 2 league titles and 1 SuperCup and heading for¬†Al-Hilal’s big money contract. A statement that surely made Becali smile happily that he had no more competition within the club¬†in terms of bragging and speaking about himself in third person. Now, one and a half season later,¬†fearing that he might lose the title, Becali made the call¬†and the dozen promises and got¬†back the 40 years old. Steaua will make it to the playoffs in Liga 1’s first season in the new format, but is now 4th in the standings, behind Astra, Viitorul and Dinamo, so the vocal owner can’t take anything for granted. He’ll have to accept Reghecampf and all his (and his wife’s) wishes.

poza

It’s not a bad move, let’s be clear. Actually, it makes perfect sense that a club owner in charge of transfers who only knows current or ex-Liga 1 players to appoint a coach whose wife is an agent and who is ready to accept such a terrible transfers policy without issues. It came as no surprise to see headlines in December announcing Steaua’s first “new” signings. Old faces on the bench, old faces on the pitch too: Pintilii, a 31 years old, who had followed Reghecampf to Al-Hilal, will leave Hapoel Tel-Aviv after 14 matches; Bourceanu, a flop at Trabzonspor, will return for a second time to Steaua.

The two formed a very successful pair in central midfield when Steaua was indeed an impressive force in Liga 1, but the spine of the team also featured Tatarusanu in goal, Chiriches and Gardos at the back, Rusescu upfront. Chipciu was in great shape, Popa was impressing as well, and not with the¬†Christmas pictures taken in Reghecampf’s house, in Las Vegas…

Although the team is in a worse shape than two years ago,¬†Steaua has every chance to successfully defend the¬†title. Dinamo and Viitorul look to be lacking the strength and belief to go all the way when the big games will come in succession, while current league leaders look like¬†a team that can be dismantled in January, with offers flowing in since word came out that Ioan Niculae, currently behind bars, wants to cash out. Maybe that’s why Reghecampf doesn’t see as a challenge getting Tade (top scorer in 2015), Alcenat or Guilherme (best right back and left back, respectively, when playing for Petrolul) back to their best and accepts Becali’s decision to get rid of them at all¬†costs. In the end, it will only create more room for his wishes and his wife’s deals.

Unfortunately, such a chaotic approach has little chance to be punished on the pitch, as the¬†level of the league is still¬†too¬†low to produce a genuine title contender for¬†Steaua,¬†a¬†club that in recent times has¬†lost his aura, abandoned by fans, forced to play not only away from their stadium, but also away from Bucharest, and¬†none of its¬†bad habits. Reghecampf has every chance to secure another title for the red and blue outfit and we can’t say we hadn’t been warned by the man himself:¬†“Reghecampf¬†is the best”.

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