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So, after a year’s hiatus, CFR Cluj return to Europe’s biggest stage. Having burst into the spotlight back in 2008 when they defeated Roma at the Stadio Olimpico, it had looked like the Transylvanian side - who were little more than lower league fodder until a takeover in 2002 - were to fall back into obscurity as foreign talent departed and funding dropped off. However, after coming out on top in tight title fight with Unirea Urziceni last season, Cluj are back at the top table.
Funded by Arkad Paszkany, the softly-spoken businessman who has bankrolled their rise up through the divisions, Cluj remain a club thrust to the top of the Romanian game, rather than one that has risen. Their financial clout leaves them largely unpopular at home in a manner not dissimilar to that experienced by Chelsea in England.
STRENGTHS & WEAKNESSES
CFR, as was the case in their last appearance in the Champions League, remain a very cosmopolitan side, boasting a broad spectrum of players from Europe, South America and Africa. This type of squad demographic has developed for two reasons; firstly, as in many countries, foreign players are still awarded a particular reverence in Romania; and secondly, because they have tended to take the outwardly looking approach of hiring foreign coaches, meaning that they are generally likely to recruit more non-Romanian players.
This multinational stance has been a double-edged sward for Cluj. On one side, the football has been bright, varied and largely successful. While on the other, it has proven very difficult for the club to keep its roster harmonious, with a number of players seeing the club’s last Champions League run as a way of projecting their name across Europe.
Generally, the side have been based upon the sound defensive principles of their Italian coach Andrea Mandorlini. Appointed last November, the coach led his side to the title last season and is the third Italian coach to have headed Cluj in the last three years. His side conceded just 23 times in 34 games last season. However, their organisational qualities appear to have waned this campaign with the side sitting tenth and having shipped nine games in just six matches.
STARS & KEY PLAYERS
Lacina Traore is a temperamental, languid front man, who is capable of producing tremendous pieces of play, as well as moments of complete idiocy. However, even despite his frustratingly volatile personality, the striker, who measures over two metres in height, is an obvious threat.
Emmanual Culio is a name that will ring a bell in many people’s heads as the man who grabbed both the goals in Cluj’s famous victory in Rome. Despite that brace presenting the impression of a goalscoring midfielder, he only tends to find the net infrequently. Despite that, though, he remains a tidy and smart left-sided player.
The defence is marshalled by the tenacious Ricardo Cadu who can be relied upon for full commitment, as well as his fair share of yellow cards. The Brazilian’s natural leadership skills mean that either he or fellow defender Tony captain the side.
COACH & TACTICS
Although not hugely successful in his homeland, Andrea Mandorlini has proven an effective and flexible coach during his time in Romania. He follows fellow countrymen Maurizio Trombetta and Cristiano Bergodi in coaching the Transylvanian side, albeit with more success than his two predecessors.
Mandorlini arrived last December with the side already in a strong position. However, despite topping the table for the entire second-half of the campaign, it was an extremely tight battle, with several clubs involved in the title race until the final couple of weeks. In the end, Cluj tipped Unirea to the crown by three points. During their run to the title, Mandorlini earned himself a reputation for carefully constructed game-plans that frequently saw his side win games by a single goal.
"I don't necessarily want a team which entertains, but definitely a team that wins,” said Mandorlini after claiming the title. “Our way of playing reflects how I am. I am Italian and I love being Italian. Our national style of football is very well organised and that's how I've always been. That kind of discipline is something specific to Italian football. Me and the teams I coach will always be like that and I am happy to have succeeded in doing a great job with Cluj."
Mandorlini largely sets his sides up in a 4-4-2 (or a near variant), with an organised defence and smart midfielders. The central defensive pairing of Cadu and Felice Piccolo is experienced, but can be - Piccolo in particular - very vulnerable to quick, direct attackers. Culio on the left has an excellent left foot that is relied upon for diagonal or reverse balls to split defences and make use of pace in attack. Whilst not being quick, the midfielder shuttles around the field with a touch and assurance that adds a natural verve to his play.
Cluj’s successes read like a review of the last decade, with much of the twentieth century consisting of an unremarkable lower league existence. However, when the ambitious Paszkany purchased the club back in 2002, he led them on a remarkable rise from regional leagues up to Liga I. The league title arrived in their fourth season at that level (2007/08) and then again when they wrestled it back off Unirea Urziceni last year.
Other notable successes include having won the Romanian Cup for the last three seasons and the Romanian Super Cup for the last two.
Like the club that plays in it, the Constantin Radulescu Stadium has undergone significant investment to become one of the best in Romania. It’s current capacity sits at a modest 23,500, although that has quite a lot to do with the fact that the stadium only has three sides due to a road that passes very near to the pitch on the empty length of the pitch.
The site has been the home of Cluj since the 1970s and sits in a dense residential area to the north-west of the city centre. Despite having been redeveloped very recently the stadium remains a testament to poor stadium design, with many of the seated areas remaining exposed to the elements, with columns obstructing views in the main stand.
HERO OF THE FANS
With so few Romanians in the Cluj side, much of the attention sits with the foreign players at the club. In Cadu, Cluj fans have a player who may be from the other side of Europe, but who embodies the desire and commitment that they all display in the stands. The defender is a natural leader and has also proven developed a useful trait for scoring important goals.
Alongside Bayern, Roma and Basel, Cluj’s task looks a very tough one. The German champions proved last season what a strong side they are, while Roma pushed Inter all the way in the Serie A title race. For Cluj, their focus must primarily be on coming out on top against the Swiss champions Basel.
Realistically, a third place finish would be seen as a success, taking the side into the Europa League knock-out stages.
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