Romania aren’t the most exciting team at Euro 2016, but the 2004 edition gave a lesson this team seems to have acknowledged. The Greeks grunted and ground their way past the likes of France and Portugal (twice) to win the competition, upsetting purists and the odds alike. And Romania, despite going into this year’s tournament with available odds of 260/1, look capable of causing an upset. For a start, all of their important players are fit.
France, Switzerland and Albania should be cautious when facing a team with impressive defensive capabilities and the ambition to haul themselves up football’s ladder.
Can they overcome their mental fragility?
Romanian football always finds it hard to adopt the right mentality at key moments. Perhaps the best example would be Steaua Bucharest allowing Middlesbrough to achieve a historic four-goal comeback in the 2006 UEFA Cup Semi-Finals, when manager Cosmin Olaroiu went overly defensive in the second leg’s second half and his players were penned into their own half, inevitably conceding again and again.
In international football, Romania faced Greece in a two-legged play-off for a place at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and in the first leg things looked good until Greece restored their lead seconds after Romania had equalised. The suddenness of the goal dented the visitors’ confidence – several players appeared to simply give up. Greece won 3-1 before securing a 1-1 draw in the second leg, and Romania manager Victor Piturca blamed his players for making schoolboy errors.
That mindset cannot continue. If Romania are to have any impact at Euro 2016, highly experienced manager Anghel Iordanescu must ensure his players have the self-confidence to get themselves out of difficult situations on the pitch. It’s easier said than done.
What they’ve learned
Defence is the bedrock of success: Romania were one of four teams that qualified unbeaten. Their strong, hard-working defence was almost impenetrable, leaking only two goals in 10 matches (none of them on the road) as the team finished second behind Northern Ireland.
Five wins and five draws – three of them 0-0 – taught Romania that Iordanescu’s primary focus of keeping things tight certainly does work. They lack world-class players so this would seem to be the most successful way to approach a major tournament in which only Hungary, Albania and Northern Ireland are less fancied by the bookies.
Just try scoring
That defence of theirs is mean. The two goals they shipped in qualifying – via Hungary’s Balazs Dzsudzsak and Finland’s Joel Pohjanpalo – was a tally bettered by no other side.
Fiorentina’s in-form goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu and Napoli’s centre-back Vlad Chiriches led the national team to an unbeaten run of 17 matches before the recent (and wholly uncharacteristic) 4-3 friendly defeat to Ukraine in which they found themselves 4-1 down. Since June 2014 the Romanians have faced the likes of Italy and Spain, but managed to draw both matches.
If the Tricolorii are to cause a shock this summer, it will come through Iordanescu’s impeccable defence keeping even more clean sheets – and that doesn’t seem unlikely. In France, they’re likely to frustrate teams and neutrals rather than entertain them.
No goals? No glory
Of the 23 teams that qualified, no team averaged fewer goals per game than Romania, level with Wales and Hungary. With 11 in 10 matches, of which three were netted in the last game against the Faroe Islands, it’s safe to say that Romania lack attacking prowess.
The manager’s defensive approach makes a great deal of sense when you consider that his centre-forwards have been shy in front of goal over the past couple of years. Although pacey wide forwards Gabriel Torje and Adrian Popa constantly harass opposition defences, a true No.9 is yet to emerge.
Former Inter forward Denis Alibec, who has just won the Romanian league title with Astra Giurgiu, is the fans’ favourite to fill the lone striker role in Iordanescu’s 4-2-3-1 formation. The 25-year-old has barely played a combined 90 minutes in a Romania shirt but scored 16 league goals in 2015/16, and alternatives are thin on the ground.
Newcomer Stanciu has impressed in recent friendlies, scoring against Lithuania, DR Congo and Ukraine. Sandwiched in between those games was his man-of-the-match display in the goalless draw with Spain.
The attacking midfielder has been in exceptional form this season, scoring 14 goals and crafting 11 assists in the 38 matches he played for Romanian runners-up Steaua. He has caught the attention of both Milan clubs, who have each sent scouts to follow the player. Zenit, Roma and Fenerbahce have had offers turned down recently by chairman Gigi Becali, who announced that Steaua’s asking price for the hot prospect is nothing short of €10 million.
The 23-year-old has already won Romania’s top flight twice, as well as three domestic cups. The national team’s fans believe he is the No.10 Romania have lacked for a long time – probably since Gheorghe Hagi retired. And when you consider that their strikers haven’t scored many lately, it seems the hopes of 22 million supporters are resting on Stanciu’s shoulders.
Iordanescu, 66, is in his third stint with Romania. The first time around, he took them to the 1994 World Cup and then as far as the quarter-finals, the country’s best ever performance. ‘The General’ then secured qualification for Euro 96 and France 98, where they beat England and topped their group.
That success wasn’t repeated when he took charge again in 2002, and in 2007 he retired from football management in order to become a senator. But when Razvan Burleanu – then just 29 – was elected president of the Romanian FA in March 2014, it was only a matter of time before he sought out Iordanescu.