Eastern Europe: last two champions face-off in Romania
The winter break comes to an end in Romania this weekend. Liga 1 resumes with a very competitive championship table showing four points separating the top six teams and a top of the table clash between the top two teams Unirea Urziceni and CFR Cluj-Napoca, who are the two most recent championship winning sides with the former defending the title they won last season and the latter winning their maiden title in 2007-08. Should either or both of these teams drop points then record champions Steaua Bucharest are waiting to pounce and anyone from FC Timişoara, Rapid Bucharest or FC Vaslui can improve their prospects of a title challenge with victories against teams in the lower half of the table.
The big news in Romanian football over the winter break was the surprise resignation of Dan Petrescu from champions Unirea Urziceni in order to take over at Russian First League (second-tier) team FC Kuban Krasnodar. After guiding the club from south-east Romania to their maiden title in the 2008-09 season he led FC Unirea to third place in their UEFA Champions League group this season finishing behind Sevilla CF and VfB Stuttgart but ahead of Glasgow Rangers and ensured that they had European football after Christmas in the UEFA Europa League. He has been replaced by Israeli coach Ronny Levy who will hope to carry on where Petrescu left off with the club leading the way domestically.
However FC Unirea’s first match after the winter pause takes place on Monday against CFR Cluj-Napoca, the team who beat them in the 2008 Romanian Cup final. In the opening match of the 2009-10 season CFR Cluj-Napoca, famous for being resident in the Transylvania region, beat the defending league champions 2-0, this victory coming just a week after CFR Cluj had beaten FC Unirea in the Romanian Super Cup on penalties. Therefore FC Unirea will have a score to settle and will want to give their new coach a maiden victory especially as they narrowly lost to Liverpool FC 1-0 in the UEFA Europa League last night.
In the other important games in Liga 1 third-place Steaua Bucharest plays at home to bottom ranked team Ceahlaul Piatra Niamt in a game which the Militarii (Army Men) are easily expected to win in front of a partisan crowd. Should the top two draw in their encounter on Monday then Steaua could find themselves all alone at the top of the table. However should Steaua do the unthinkable and drop points themselves then there will be three other teams who harbour hopes of starting a run which could land them the championship. Fourth-place FC Timişoara, who were league runners-up last season, plays against second-bottom (17th place) Gloria Bastrita, fifth-place Rapid Bucharest plays against 13th place Politechnica Iasi and sixth-place FC Vaslui plays Gaz Metan Medias, who lie in tenth place. Even FC Brasov and Dinamo Bucharest, who occupy the seventh and eighth spots in the table, may have hope of at least finishing second in the league as they are both just seven points from the top three. A UEFA Champions League qualifying stage spot goes the team who finishes second in Romania’s Liga 1 with the champions gaining automatic qualification so there is everything to play for in one of the tightest championships for many a year.
ROMANIA’S TOP EIGHT
1. Unirea Urziceni Played 17/ Points 34/ Goal Difference +13
2. CFR Cluj-Napoca 17/34/+12
3. Steaua Bucharest 17/34/+11
4. FC Timişoara 17/31/+17
5. Rapid Bucharest 17/31/+15
6. FC Vaslui 17/30/+6
7. FC Brasov 17/27/+8
8. Dinamo Bucharest 17/27/+7