The 85th Romanian championship season begins on Saturday, with the perennial question of whether any side can break Bucharest's recent monopoly of the title once again in the forefront of most people's minds.
Teams from the national capital have won every championship contested over the last eleven years, and 20 of the last 21 titles, with FC Steaua Bucuresti picking up 12 crowns, FC Dinamo Bucuresti seven and FC Rapid Bucuresti one. The only team to break the capital clubs' supremacy was FC Universitatea Craiova in 1990/91.
Little chance for Universitatea
Few observers give Universitatea any chance of repeating that success this season, indeed it is once again the trio of Bucharest powers who are expected to dominate proceedings. Nevertheless, it is hard to say which of these sides are favourites to lift the crown come the end of the season. Dinamo are the reigning champions but Steaua and Rapid are their equals in resources and playing power.
In the close season, Dinamo performed something of a coup by persuading Universitatea's main investor Gheorghe Netoiu to switch camps, bringing nine players with him (Stefan Preda, Ciprian Danciu, Cosmin Barcauan, Dan Alexa, Stefan Grigorie, Cornel Frasineanu, Flavius Stoican, Catalin Craciunescu, Ovidiu Burca). The champions have also bought CS Otelul Galati goalkeeper Cristian Munteanu.
However despite all these new arrivals Dinamo still failed to reach the third qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League and were beaten in the Romanian Super Cup by Rapid. Coach Cornel Dinu was subsequently sacked, with Ion Moldovan arriving in his place two days' later. The arrival of Romanian national-team captain Gheorghe Popescu has also raised morale at the club.
New Steaua coach
Steaua have not been so active on the transfer market. They have appointed a very young coach in the 33-year-old Cosmin Olaroiu (who led FC National Bucuresti to second place last season) and without the distractions of European competition they have been able to concentrate solely on domestic matters in the pre-season period. Steaua's 2001/02 squad has been improved with the arrival of defenders Sorin Ghionea, George Ogararu and Valeriu Mieila, as well as midfield player Gabriel Bostina and striker Daniel Oprita.
Rapid, the third major title contenders, also have a young coach in Mircea Rednic who was appointed towards the tail end of last season and has already succeeded in winning the Romanian Cup and Super Cup. Rednic has decided to put his faith in youth after the departures of Daniel Pancu and Marius Sumudica. It will therefore be a big season for forwards Florin Bratu and Daniel Niculae, as well as talented libero Vasile Maftei and left-sided midfield player Razvan Rat, all of whom are in their early twenties.
It will be fascinating to see how last season's runners-up National perform under their new coach, the former Italian international goalkeeper Walter Zenga. Gabi Popescu, Slavisa Mitrovic, Stelian Carabas and Adrian Falub have all left the club, but the arrivals of Daniel Prodan, Dan Petrescu and Victor Iacob have produced much optimism. Another side who could pull off a few surprises are FCM Bacau. The city's mayor Dumitru Sechelariu has big ambitions for the club and has appointed a renowned coach in Dumitru Dumitriu and bought a well-known goalkeeper in Florin Prunea. With local stars such as Catalin Cursaru and Radu Ciobanu also likely to shine, Bacau could well be in contention to qualify for the UEFA Cup.
The remainder of the division look likely to scramble for places in mid-table, while newly-promoted UTA Arad and Politehnica AEK Timisoara are the favourites to be relegated along with Otelul, who lost seven of their best players over the summer.