FC Steaua București may not top the Romanian First Division at the winter break but they are the team to beat – indeed none of their domestic rivals have managed to do so this season.
Third-placed Steaua have won 11 and drawn six of their 17 league matches, and though they trail leaders FC Astra Giurgiu by three points, the reigning champions – chasing a 25th title – have two home games in hand, against CS Concordia Chiajna one month today and FC Universitatea Cluj four days later, before the spring campaign proper begins on 22 February. Indeed Steaua, despite their European exit, completed all 20 of their domestic fixtures in the autumn unbeaten, thanks to their run to the Romanian Cup semi-finals.
Still, they have several obstacles to overcome if they are to retain their crown; as well as Astra, they trail FC Petrolul Ploieşti by a point. CS Pandurii Târgu Jiu, in fourth, are only eight points off the summit as well, but the transfer of key man Eric Pereira to Saudi Arabia's Al-Ahli SC will probably leave them happy to secure a top-three finish and another tilt at the UEFA Europa League group phase.
One thing links the trio of likely contenders: young coaches. Astra's Daniel Isăilă is just 41, yet that makes him three years the senior of Petrolul coach Cosmin Contra and Laurențiu Reghecampf of Steaua.
However, if Steaua are more than familiar with the upper reaches of the Romanian table, the most recent of Petrolul's championships came in 1966 – though they did lift their third cup last term – while Astra have never finished higher than the fourth they managed in 2012/13.
Reghecampf is after a first double since 1997, saying: "We are the strongest team, we will dominate the championship and we will win most of our matches. Our target is to land both the title and the cup."
Steaua ended 2013 with a 1-1 draw at Astra three days after a 3-1 home victory against the pacesetters. Astra boss Isăilă, who admits Steaua are favourites, said: "At certain points we were so naïve and when you make so many mistakes, you pay, especially when your opponents are Steaua."
But after a historic 2013 for Astra, following up their highest-ever league placing with a continental debut in UEFA Europa League qualifying and then topping the table, Isăilă is proud. "It was a very good year for us, though we are well aware we are only midway through the journey," he said.
As for Petrolul, midfielder Ovidiu Hoba mused: "After winning the cup last season, tens of thousands stormed onto the streets of Ploiesti. Imagine what would happen if we became champions!"
With just 11 goals conceded and one loss in 19 league games – beating Astra 2-1 as well as holding Steaua 1-1 – plus making the cup semis alongside their two championship rivals, Contra is understandably happy. "I am deeply proud of my team, 2013 was a perfect year for us," the ex-Romanian international said. "If we maintain the same mentality and approach we will be able to fight for the title."
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