Romaniaballs took a very long summer break, in various places with poor wifi access, so what’s been going on since the end of last season?
Oh. Four of the five Romanian teams which qualified for European competition lost their first tie. Looks like the reduction of the country’s places for next season (down to 3 Europa League and 1 Champions League) is entirely justified.
In fairness, Dinamo Bucuresti and CSU Craiova both had extremely tough opponents in the Europa League: Athletic Bilbao and AC Milan were never likely to tremble, and although the Romanian sides each achieved a creditable performance and result in the home leg, in the away fixture they were comfortably dispatched by the big boys. However, Rivaldinho, son of Rivaldo – yes, the one with the super-sensitive shin – did come up with this gem for Dinamo (in front of his dad) to equalise against Athletic at the National Arena. In the same competition, Astra Giurgiu went out 1-0 on aggregate to the unfashionable (is it patronising to say that in this day and age?) FC Oleksandriya of Ukraine.
In the Champions League, FC Viitorul‘s Cristi Ganea magicked this free-kick into the net to take the lead against Apoel Nicosia, but they went out anyway, pummelled 4-0 in Cyprus. Although they’re technically still in Europe, this week they pretty much blew their chances in the Europa League too, by losing 3-1 at home to Red Bull Salzburg.
FC FCSB (formerly known as “Steaua”, of course) were the only Romanians to progress, knocking out Viktoria Plzen with what football writers are compelled to call a “flurry” of late goals. Becali’s ludicrously monikered team will take on Sporting Clube de Portugal in the play-off round this week, in their quest to reach the lucrative group stage. Having managed a goalless draw in Lisbon, the home leg at the National Arena should be quite an occasion. Your correspondent will be there.
Believe it or not, we are now *checks Soccerway* SIX GAMES into the Liga I season!! Who knew?! And there’s an average of less than two goals per game!! Who could have guessed?!
Let’s catch up with the domestic scene (with thanks to Radu Baicu of Scouting Romania)… [Before you ask, I’m afraid I have nothing at all to say about Dinamo, Fake Poli Timişoara or Gaz Metan Mediaş.]
As I write, CFR Cluj are top of the league. They have won five out of six and have not conceded a goal since the first day of the season. During the summer they hired a new coach, former Bradford City* full-back** Dan Petrescu. The club’s financial collapse in 2014 cost it three lucrative seasons in Europe and, thanks to points deductions, realistic chances of the league championship. Petrescu won it in 2009, with an unfancied Unirea Urziceni team, and he has a good record in the Romanian league. Now that the club is solvent again, and there is for once no threat of points penalties, they are building a squad to challenge seriously for a fourth Liga I title – although, like almost everyone else, they are doing it without paying any transfer fees whatsoever.
*Yes, I do know he also played for Foggia.
**And he often played in midfield.
Botoşani have started the season strongly and sit second. I know nothing about this small-town team (or the town) other than that they are considered – almost uniquely in top-level Romanian football – to be prudently run. They changed their coach in the summer.
CSU Craiova (a historic and successful club which was dissolved in farcical cirumstances and re-founded in 2013) also changed their manager in the summer, welcoming former Italy Under-21 coach Devis Mangia. Unfortunately, because Craiova’s expensive new stadium will not be ready until the winter, the Europa League home fixture against Milan was, like all the club’s home games, played 100km away in Turnu Severin. But 14,000 fans came along and created a festival atmosphere anyway; it’s not every day giants of the global game come to this part of the world, after all. Although it was well publicised that Milan had not played a European fixture for over three years, this was Craiova’s first European adventure since being dumped out of the Cup-Winners’ Cup by Ginola and Weah-era Paris St. Germain in … 1993. Anyway, they lie third so far, but they did sell their captain Andrei Ivan to Krasnodar a few weeks ago.
FCSB have a new coach too: Nicolae Dică, who led SCM Pitești from the third to the second tier last season. The former Steaua striker is just 37 and has only a year’s top-level coaching experience (as Constantin Gâlcă’s assistant at Steaua). Becali has done his usual thing of buying all the best available players this summer, weakening rivals and stockpiling talent with a view to making big money from sales abroad. Viitorul’s captain Benzar and defender Nedelcu; gifted midfielder Budescu, plus veterans Junior Morais and Felipe Teixeira, all from Astra; CFR Cluj’s defender Larie; and Botoşani’s forward Golofca have all joined since the end of last season. Expectations are high at FCSB, and coaches tend not to last long unless they are prepared to let the owner have his input into team selection. They are unbeaten so far in all competitions and Harlem “the Bison” Gnohere is the league’s top scorer so far with four goals. Nothing but first place is good enough for Becali or the fans, however, especially given the relatively huge resources on offer. The €13 million reward if they reach the Champions League group stages would further extend their financial dominance of the game.
Astra, another eccentrically-run organisation, have (guess what?) shipped out the coach and most of the players who won the league in 2015-16. Edward Iordănescu, son of the legendary Anghel, is the new man at the helm. Leading the line this season is Anthony Le Tallec, a 32-year-old striker who has scored more than seven goals in a season only once. (He was Sunderland’s top scorer one year though – with six.)
Heading up the bottom eight, Voluntari added the Super Cup to their Cup win from earlier in the summer: they now have two major trophies in their cabinet. I have little to offer you on this club, except that they will play a home game against Dinamo, at 9pm next Saturday, 130km away in Pitești because they STILL haven’t got floodlights at their own stadium. Another reminder of the incompetence of governing bodies, that the TV companies call the shots and any fans who might actually turn up are worth knack-all to the game. Ooh, and the ancient pair of Lazar and Cernat are, remarkably, still going in Voluntari’s midfield; they used to play for Romania back in the 19th century.
CSMS Iași are the third-biggest spenders in the league this summer: they have shelled out a whopping €18,000 in transfer fees. (That got them two players.)
Sepsi OSK Sfântu Gheorghe: perhaps the ultimate little guys. Their crummy ground wasn’t even fit for Liga 2 last year, so they’re playing home games 35km away in Brașov. (Conveniently, Brașov’s historic club went bust this year.) Attendances have been admirably high, and stoppage-time victory over the champions was a moment to savour. Grizzled 900-year-old striker Attila Hadnagy was the scorer, inevitably. Survival would be a massive achievement for the Szekelys.
2016-17 champions (confirmed last month by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, after the end-of-season confusion and legal challenge by FCSB) Viitorul: an exodus took place, as usual, this summer. But plenty of young talent is still there, now guided by the ageing Rapid legend Ovidiu Herea. However, they’ve had a bad start to the season – one win and two draws, plus disappointment in Europe. And the transfer window is still open…
What can I say about Concordia Chiajna that hasn’t already been said amongst their two or three fans? Dan “the Surgeon” Alexa left his post after the first match of the season. Their new coach is the remarkable Vasile Miriuță, who once kept a job for more than a whole season. No wins as yet – but they are used to that.
Newly promoted Juventus Bucureşti are rooted to the bottom of the league table. They are playing their home matches 70km from home, in Ploiești. Staying up seems unlikely.
THE LOWER LEAGUES
Liga 2 has another Şoimii Pâncota this year, in the shape of Foresta Suceava, who are fielding the kids and getting thumped: 16-0 and 6-0 in their first two games. Freshly relegated ASA Târgu Mureş are top so far. Newly promoted Ripensia Timişoara (lots of history there, yum) and AFC Hermannstadt (from Sibiu) have also started brightly.
Liga 3 kicks off next week. Among its 75 teams, split into five series, are big names (mostly heartwarming, fan-run phoenix clubs) such as Otelul Galati, Universitatea Cluj, Petrolul 52, Delta Tulcea and Farul Constanta. Given the vacuumish nature of the second tier, in two years any of these could be back in the big time.
The Bucharest Liga 4 looks tasty: the army’s new and very well-funded CSA Steaua will meet two newly-promoted clubs formed from the ashes of Rapid, as well as a moribund Sportul Studentesc, some other names from ages past like Progresul, Victoria, Venus and Tricolor, and – rumour has it – a new Dinamo club (well, why not?). The fun starts at the beginning of September.
Romania have not quite stuffed up their chances of qualifying for Russia 2018: they are 4th in Group E, having won only once in six matches. That one win, though, was 5-0 in Armenia, who visit Bucharest on 1 September. A victory in Montenegro three days later could leave the Romanians in a decent position to reach the play-off, but only if Denmark mess up.
There has been plenty of movement among the expat Romanians this summer. For some reason, it’s mainly about Turkey and Belgium…
After an unsuccessful year at Zenit, superhero Mircea Lucescu has become Turkish national team coach. His son Răzvan earned a move up the Greek league from Xanthi to PAOK. Title-winning Astra coach Marius Șumudică is now managing Kayserispor in Turkey, and he has brought Romanian internationals Silviu Lung jr. and [Rapid legend] Cristi Săpunaru, plus Brazilian Fernando Boldrin, with him from Giurgiu. On the Black Sea coast of Turkey, Karabükspor is now home to no fewer than six Romanian internationals, including Paul Papp and Gabriel Torje.
Belgium continues to be well-populated by Romanians, although in less concentrated form: László Bölöni, the new coach at Royal Antwerp, has no Romanian players at his disposal. Nor can Mircea Rednic, who stays at Mouscron having saved them from certain relegation last year, call upon any fellow-countrymen. National team regulars Stanciu and Chipciu helped Anderlecht to the championship – to a certain extent, anyway – while youngster Marin is desperate to make an impact at Standard Liege.
Ianis Hagi (“He has two feet and I have only one but I’m sure he’s mine”, says his dad), not yet 19, seems ever closer to breaking through at Fiorentina, a club Romania’s first-choice goalkeeper Ciprian Tătărușanu has just left to join Nantes… His understudy Costel Pantilimon has been told he is no longer required at Watford… Stancu has just moved to Paul Le Guen’s Bursaspor from another mid-table Turkish no-mark team whose name I can’t be bothered to look up… Deportivo this week turned down an offer from Burnley for their prized striker Florin Andone… On the other side of Spain, Alin Toșca is on his third manager at Betis, only seven months in, but will hope to continue a successful 2017… Keșerü, Maxim and Popa are staying put at Ludogorets, Mainz and Reading.