One month into a cold, football-less desert, and with a couple of weeks remaining before the Liga I season resumes, it’s about time for a winter break update…
There will again be a genuine contest for the league title this year. Nicolae Dică’s FCSB and Dan Petrescu’s CFR Cluj have been more or less neck-and-neck for months now: CFR sit top during the winter break, but their lead is only two points. The teams will play four more matches before the league splits and the points get halved, so it looks set to remain extremely close going into the play-off phase. Not to neglect Universitatea Craiova, who have been unexpectedly consistent under their Italian coach Devis Mangia and are just four points behind FCSB. In truth, like every year, the championship is really FCSB’s to lose: they have the most potent attack and a solid defence, and if Dică can get the most out of his stockpile of most of the nation’s talent one might expect them to win all their remaining games. But despite, like every year, spending more than all the other clubs combined, they are making heavy work of it on the field. Like every year.
This winter, experienced international centre-back Valerică Găman has been brought in from the Romanian expat enclave of Karabükspor to bolster FCSB’s back line. But the biggest transfer of the hiatus so far has been the return home of Ianis Hagi. Dad paid to bring the young midfielder back to Viitorul from Fiorentina after junior failed to make an impression on the senior team in Florence; the Brazilian Eric – after five goals and five assists in half a season – heads for Qatar to make room. Cristi Ganea has also signed a deal to leave the reigning champions: in the summer he will move to Athletic Bilbao. He’s not Basque, he’s Romanian, but qualifies to play for the club because he came through the ranks at nearby Basauri as a youngster – even representing the Basque country at age group level. His parents, who emigrated to Basauri when Cristi was eight, still live in the place and run a cafe there.
Radu Baicu of Scouting Romania has a short, thoughtful article in English on what the Hagi transfer means here. I recommend Costin Stucan’s article on Ianis’ strange move to Italy in 2015 here. On an unrelated note, you should also read the estimable Emanuel Roșu’s piece on a very unusual Petrolul player, in the Guardian here. Oh – and Rivaldinho seems to be off, after a short and halfway decent spell at Dinamo: the press are currently linking him with Levski Sofia, but who knows.
Beneath Craiova, five teams will battle for three play-off places. At the moment Dinamo are on the verge of the unthinkable (just like last year): they currently lie below the cut-off on goal difference, with Astra, surprise package Botoșani and Viitorul ahead of them and Poli Iași with an outside chance just behind. For once, Concordia Chiajna look safe from relegation, by virtue of the three teams below them being appallingly bad. After the halving of points they will be right back in the mire, but they have plenty of experience at narrowly avoiding the drop – and have won as many games as the bottom three combined.
FCSB are the last team left in Europe, following a few decent performances against underwhelming opposition in the Europa League group stage. Unfortunately, their reward will be to lose over two legs to Lazio in February.
Also happening in February will be the quarter-finals of the Romanian Cup, whose juiciest tie is probably FCSB’s visit to high-flying second division outfit Hermannstadt. Could the Sibiu side create the mother of all upsets? They are currently sitting second in Liga II, just below Dan “The Surgeon” Alexa’s all-conquering Dunărea Călărași. Both teams look good for automatic promotion at the moment. Fellow second-tier clubs Pandurii and Târgu Mureş have both received another legal stay of execution which enables them to stay afloat.
At the bottom of the Liga II table, however, Olimpia Satu Mare are in a tight spot on -15 points (having been deducted 38 so far this season) and look likely to be wound up before completing the programme. The curse of the insane way most Romanian football clubs are run strikes again (in this case it’s apparently the local council’s fault). Two of Olimpia’s players this week opted for a pay rise and better job security, by signing for an amateur team who are bottom of the Baden-Wurttemberg provincial championship, in the seventh tier of German football.
Not much else going on… apart from the usual bizarre antics at warm-weather training camps, involving the coincidence of suspect betting patterns and strange on-pitch outcomes. Dinamo’s friendly this week against Aris Limassol in Cyprus saw Dinamo scoring four easy goals in 12 second-half minutes. Dinamo striker Adam Nemec, infuriated at the Aris goalkeeper’s lack of effort, was booked for angrily confronting him during the game. Romania’s main sports paper GSP is suspicious, justifiably, after last winter’s farcical events which you really would struggle to make up.
Coming soon: a look back at a forgotten world, rendered somewhat uncanny by the fog of history, of football clubs now mostly defunct… That’s right, the Romanian top flight ten years ago. Watch this space for some prime nostalgescu.*
*A term I have just made up.