CFR 1907 Cluj's chances of capturing the Romanian title are slipping away after FC Steaua Bucureşti surged to the top of the rankings with a win on Thursday night.
With six games to go, season sensations Cluj have been knocked off the top following a worrying slump in form. Indeed, while Steaua completed a run of eight straight victories thanks to a 3-1 triumph at CF Gloria 1922 Bistrita, their title rivals could only draw 1-1 at AFC Unirea Valahorum Urziceni. As a result, Steaua now enjoy a two-point lead over second-placed Cluj.
Marius Lăcătuş's side have come a long way since losing their opening game of the autumn, with the eleven-point cushion Cluj took into the winter break having completely evaporated in the face of some much more consistent performances from the new leaders. While the 23-time Romanian champions are showing their experience, in fact, Cluj's largely foreign squad are undergoing a footballing meltdown.
Cluj made history of a sort on 30 March when they became the first side in Romania to field an entirely foreign starting XI in their 2-1 win at FC Dinamo 1948 Bucureşti, but the bigger and more telling story of their recent run came as they lost 2-1 at home against CS Pandurii Lignitul Târgu Jiu in the next game – a genuinely shocking result.
Credit must go to Pandurii, however. Halfway through the season, they were 17th in the 18-team table, but after defeats in their first three games of 2008 put them bottom, Eugen Neagoe returned to replace Portuguese coach Joaquim Teixeira and promptly mounted a stunning revival. Six straight wins – most recently against Cluj and Dinamo – have since lifted them up to eleventh place.
Such sudden turnarounds in fortune have epitomised this most exciting of seasons in Romania, however few commentators are anticipating another major detour in the title race. While Steaua appear firm favourites to claim the title – and an automatic UEFA Champions League place – Cluj seem destined to settle for second and a berth in the third qualifying round when the season ends on 7 May.
Further back, the battle for third place – and a tilt at next season's UEFA Cup – remains wide open, with FC Rapid Bucureşti, Unirea, Dinamo and FC Politehnica 1921 Ştiinţa Timişoara all in contention. The Romanian Cup semis will be played next week, meanwhile, with Cluj facing CS Dacia Mioveni and Unirea taking on FC Gloria Buzau. The final is scheduled for 10 May.
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