FC Rapid Bucuresti are out to defend their Romanian crown from their neighbours as the season starts this weekend.
Mircea Rednic's side will face serious competition from FC Dinamo Bucuresti and FC Steaua Bucuresti as the capital giants continue to dominate Divizia A. Since 1981, Steaua have won 12 titles, Dinamo seven and Rapid two, with FC Universitatea Craiova's lone triumph of 1991 being the only time a provincial club has broken the Bucharest monopoly.
Such a shock outcome appears unlikely this season, and Rapid still look the team to beat although they will be smarting from their UEFA Champions League second qualifying round defeat by RSC Anderlecht. By May, Rapid had won four trophies in 12 months - the Romanian Cup, the league and two Romanian Super Cups going to Rednic's side.
They remain favourites for the 86th Romanian league championship despite having sold left-sided defender Razvan Rat to Ukraine's FC Shakhtar Donetsk and seen veteran midfield player Ioan Ovidiu Sabau hang up his boots. Moroccan Nourredine Ziyati from R. Antwerp FC and Ionut Lutu from Universitatea may fill the gaps in midfield, and they have also signed goalkeeper Ibrahim Dossey from FC Brasov.
The 2001/02 champions, Dinamo, have had a turbulent summer with several first-choice players leaving. Captain Giani Kirita and fellow defenders Gabriel Tamas and Cornel Frasineanu departed for Turkish club Samsunspor, Galatasaray SK and Bursaspor respectively. Goalkeeper Daniel Tudor moved to Hungary's Videoton FC Fehérvár, striker Nicolae Mitea joined AFC Ajax, while Viorel Domocos landed at FC National Bucuresti.
In their places have come Belgian goalkeeper Gergory Delwarte from R. AEC Mons; French defender Xavier Méride from US Créteil; Nigerian defender Samuel Gbanga Okunowo from Ionikos FC; and Serbian defender Zoran Beosevic from NK Timok. The club have also welcomed back Claudiu Niculescu after a spell at Genoa 1893. Coach Ioan Andone now faces a difficult task weaving all these nationalities into one team.
Steaua have had a much quieter close season, with midfield player Eugen Trica, who moved to Bulgaria's PFC Litex Lovech, proving the only major departure. New arrivals include Belarussian goalkeeper Vasili Hamutovski from SV Waldhof Mannheim; defenders Stefan Nanu and Tiberiu Curt from SBV Vitesse and National respectively; midfield player Adrian Pitu from FCM Bacau; and striker Laurentiu Dinita from CF Sportul Studentesc.
Much to prove
Victor Piturca's men have an extra burden of expectation on their shoulders, however, as the coach admitted: "Steaua, Rapid and Dinamo have equal chances to become champions. But we, Steaua, are not allowed to lose it because our players have the highest salaries in the division and they have to prove that the huge investments are worth it."
Many rate the army team's chances thanks to their relatively settled squad. Indeed, clubs across the country have benefited from an unusually quiet summer. Only one team, FC Politehnica AEK Timisoara, parted company with their coach, with Viorel Visan replacing Gavril Balint.
Elsewhere, a new team will be competing in the top flight after Ploiesti's two clubs - Astra and Petrolul - merged to become FC Petrolul Ploiesti. That was good news for CS Otelul Galati who were spared from relegation as a result of the union and celebrated by signing 12 players. However, there may not be much to celebrate for clubs outside Bucharest this season. Finances are in an unusually delicate state, and while the giants compete for the title, many of the smaller sides will be battling for survival.
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