FC Oţelul Galaţi had an easy start to the spring campaign in Romania, but Dorinel Munteanu's side will need their wits about them if they are to claim a first national title.
Top of the First Division at the winter break, the Steelmen could not have asked for a gentler introduction to 2011; with their first opponents CS Pandurii Lignitul Târgu Jiu temporarily suspended from competition for non-payment of debts, Oţelul were awarded a 3-0 default victory. However, with their five championship rivals also winning, the pressure remains on the team from eastern Romania.
Oţelul Galaţi president Marius Stan has done his best to ease the demands on his side, who have never finished higher than sixth and were hardly expected to thrive this season. "It will not be a tragedy if we don't become champions," said the former player. "
Whatever happens, we are a force in this league and now everyone has to take us seriously."
FC Timişoara, FC Vaslui and the big three from Bucharest represent Oţelul's chief challengers, while a draw at promoted FC Victoria Brăneşti appeared to mark the end of champions CFR 1907 Cluj's bid. With his squad much changed over the winter, coach Alin Minteuan conceded: "Obviously a 14-point gap between us and the leaders is too much. Now we must aim for second."
They will have plenty of competition, especially if FC Dinamo Bucureşti's bold winter gambit pays off. Dinamo shed 15 players in January, including experienced internationals Adrian Cristea, Andrei Cristea, Marius Niculae and Florin Bratu, with Albanian midfielder Elis Bakaj, former VfL Wolfsburg player Vlad Munteanu and free agent Bogdan Pătrașcu arriving.
With Dinamo, the accent is on blooding youngsters, and a similar policy is being adopted by FC Rapid Bucureşti, although their January signings featured experienced performers such as Vaslui's Daniel Pancu, Brazilian midfielder Olberdam and PFC CSKA Sofia defender Pavel Vidanov. FC Steaua Bucureşti, meanwhile, must adjust to losing forward Bogdan Stancu and goalkeeper Robinson Zapata to Galatasaray AŞ, as well as striker Pantelis Kapetanos, now at CFR.
All that turbulence will doubtless encourage second-placed Timişoara, still unbeaten after 19 games despite returning boss Dušan Uhrin Jr being their third coach of the season. Canadian forward Tosaint Ricketts and former Oţelul, Steaua and Romania defender Sorin Ghionea, last at FC Rostov, have been drafted in, yet success creates its own pressure.
In this weekend's fixtures, Oţelul take on Rapid while Timişoara – also targeting a first title – travel to Cluj. "We have to win because we are not the only team chasing Oțelul," said Ghionea.
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