Four weeks to go until Liga 1 resumes, in early February, let’s take a look at the table as it stands during this long winter break. In a later post we’ll also sneak a peek at lower divisions, some cup competitions, money matters and perhaps a little morsel of Europe. Yum.
Top of Liga 1
Steaua București, the only club in Romanian competition with plenty of money, were expected to take the title this season without too much trouble. In the summer they sold both their top scorer Nicolae Stanciu and the country’s best-paid athlete Alexandru Chipciu to Anderlecht for a combined 13 million euros, but bought up a selection of the best players from potential challengers, such as Florin Tanase (from Viitorul) and William and Fernando Boldrin (both from last year’s champions Astra).
However, it has not been easy for the 26-time league champions; coach Laurentiu Reghecampf has been unable to find the right balance to back up his high opinion of himself. They lost to lowly Concordia Chiajna for the first time ever, surrendered pathetically at eternal rivals Dinamo, and were knocked out of the Romanian Cup by second division minnows Mioveni. Their European adventure saw two wins from ten games, at home to Sparta Prague and Osmanlispor. The one trophy the club currently holds, the utterly unloved League Cup, is at risk too, thanks to a 4-1 first leg defeat in the semi-final, again to Dinamo. The dispute with the army about the use of the “Steaua” name, badge, colours and stadium has still not been resolved.
Yet they are second in the league, with plenty of season still to go. So far in the January window they have signed wide, mardy and bafflingly highly-rated Romania striker Dennis Alibec from Astra, plus Dinamo’s French target man Harlem Gnohere, thus further weakening their rivals. With just five games left before the league is split into the play-off (top six) and play-out (bottom eight), the roș-albaștrii are virtually assured of being in the right half, but their next three away games, at Cluj, Craiova and Mediaș, will show whether they are likely to win the title.
Prior to blowing their 13-game unbeaten run at home to Astra in the last game before Christmas, Gaz Metan Mediaș, from a small town in Transylvania, were top of the league and easily the biggest surprise package of Liga 1. Their late autumn run saw them hammer Dinamo 4-0 at home and Pandurii 5-2 away in consecutive games. Newly promoted after one season in Liga 2, Gaz Metan – romantically named after the popular local activity of gas extraction – are almost certain to beat their highest ever league finish, 7th place in 2010-11. They have the division’s runaway top scorer, Azdren Llullaku, who has scored 16 goals in 20 appearances. The Kosovan has played for Gaz Metan since 2012, when he was plucked from Italy’s Serie D. Having scored 17 in his three previous Liga I seasons combined, Llullaku is now averaging a goal every 110 minutes in the league.
UPDATE: I just found out that Llullaku has now signed for FC Astana in Kazakhstan, apparently for 300k euros a year. He turned down Steaua, Dinamo and Legia Warsaw. Fair enough – beats staying at an insolvent club that can’t afford to pay you.
But top of the league going into this winter break are FC Viitorul, the club founded by Gheorghe Hagi in 2009 as part of his project to fund the development of young players; “The King” is the owner, chairman and coach. Most of the squad are graduates of the Hagi Academy, a few promising talents have been sold to Steaua, and some have even made their full international debuts in the last couple of years, while Hagi’s own son Ianis graduated from the academy and is now at Fiorentina. The Hagi Academy is easily the best youth setup in Romania and Viitorul have become a consistent top-half presence, in spite of the apparent unsustainability of the bring-’em-through, sell-’em-on, shop-window approach. Viitorul finished fifth last year, after a huge end-of-season slump in which they won only one game out of ten in the play-off phase, and had their first excursion in European competition this autumn. Now that five consecutive wins have driven them to the top of the table, they could better that result this time around, a just reward for one of the few long-term visions in the Romanian game.
Meanwhile, the battle to finish in the top six is of crucial importance to some clubs whose immediate future is delicately poised. While the likelihood of their being barred from taking part in European competitions for financial reasons is greater than the chance of relegation to Liga 2 for footballing reasons, both Astra Giurgiu and CFR Cluj will certainly want to make it into the play-off phase. Astra’s Europa League adventures are keeping them afloat, and the money from Alibec’s transfer to Steaua will pay the remaining players’ wages for a while. Cluj have a fairly strong side and would be second if not for their ten-point deduction relating to their ongoing insolvency. Below these two, Botosani have faded badly, with no wins and two goals in their last seven games. Higher up, 18-time champions Dinamo are now out of administration and should be good enough to stay in the top six.
All the other teams are crap. At the beginning of the season it seemed clear that ASA Targu Mures and ACS Poli Timisoara, both with heavy points deductions, would surely go down. However, ACS Poli in particular have shown signs of life and could yet drag the appallingly goal-shy Chiajna into the relegation places during the play-out stage, when points from the regular season will have been halved. All three of Chiajna’s fans will be hoping that they can completely change their personnel and engineer a Houdini act, just like last season. Targu Mures, a clone club founded in 2013, who nearly won the league in 2014-15, are on the verge of bankruptcy – the local council have run out of money to support them – and have just sacked their coach Dan Alexa. Pandurii Targu Jiu are not currently playing in Targu Jiu, but over 50 miles away in Drobeta Turnu-Severin, while their new stadium is being built. The fans, such as there were, are understandably staying away and what seemed like good transfer business in the summer – the very experienced Lucian Sânmărtean and Ovidiu Herea came in – now looks more like foolishness as the club can no longer afford to pay them. They are looking to recruit some second or third division players this month, to fulfil the remaining fixtures; the maximum monthly salary will be 1,000 euros. Bankruptcy looms.
UPDATE: According to the Romanian footballers’ union AFAN, Targu Mures players have not been paid since halfway through last season. The club has avoided bankruptcy for now, but looks likely to sustain another points deduction.
As in the big leagues further west, money is the main driver of events in Romanian football. However, here no-one is pocketing Chinese millions: desperate scrabbling behind the sofa to keep clubs going is the order of things. More on the scarcely credible figures in a future post on money matters…