Adrian Mutu's return to Romania to play for FC Petrolul Ploiesţi has been big news this winter, but there will be more than one comeback kid involved when the title race resumes this weekend.
At 35, Mutu is eager for an international comeback after struggling for form at his last two clubs AC Cesena and AC Ajaccio. "I would never retire from the national team and would love to be called up again," said Mutu, who remains level on 35 goals with Gheorghe Hagi at the top of the nation's all-time scoring chart. "But I am also well aware that I will have to prove on the pitch, by playing well at club level, that I deserve to be nominated."
He will get his chance at Petrolul, his first Romanian club in 14 years since leaving FC Dinamo Bucureşti for FC Internazionale Milano in 2000. The Yellow Wolves are second in the First Division, two points behind leaders FC Astra Giurgiu and one above reigning champions FC Steaua Bucureşti, though the latter have two games in hand. Petrolul's 38-year-old coach Cosmin Contra can call on a second pedigree returnee too, 12-times capped attacking midfielder Ianis Zicu, as he looks to fill the gaps left by several winter departures.
Steaua have also brought in top local talent in forward Claudiu Keșerü, 27, who has been in France for the last decade, representing the likes of FC Nantes, SCO Angers and lately SC Bastia. He will have the opportunity to showcase his ability, having only made his Romania debut in October. "I will do my best – my ambitions are to help my new team, adapt as quickly as possible, and express myself at the highest possible level," Keşerü said.
Astra may also benefit from the presence of Romanian players seeking to reboot their careers after spells abroad. Now 24, right-back Paul Papp quit FC Vaslui for AC Chievo Verona in summer 2012, yet with first-team matches hard to come by, he has headed to the leaders on loan. "It is a step forward for me – a big chance to be seen by the national coach," said the 11-times capped Papp, who has slipped out of the Romania reckoning. "I want to become a champion and get back in the national side."
Other new recruits at ambitious Astra include former Under-21 striker Denis Alibec – now 23 and with stints at FC Internazionale Milano, KV Mechelen and Bologna FC on his CV – and Mutu's sometime Cesena and Ajaccio team-mate Ștefan Popescu, who at 20 is desperate for regular football. "I came here because I want to play, and to win, and afterwards to sign another contract abroad," said Popescu.
Certainly these younger players – like 25-year-old Dan Nistor, loaned by Évian Thonon Gaillard FC to fourth-ranked CS Pandurii Târgu Jiu – ultimately see their futures outside Romania, but the local league can only gain from that hunger. Astra and Pandurii have never won the championship while Petrolul claimed the last of their four in 1966 – boosted by fresh additions with everything to prove, all three teams will have their eyes on Steaua's crown.
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