Steaua Bucuresti's 1-0 win over CFR Cluj on Sunday could signal the end of the Liga 1 title race, just a mere 11 matches into the new season...
Liga 1, the top tier in Romanian football, can draw comparisons to several other European divisions in the fact it's continually dominated by just a cluster of teams. Portugal's top-flight sees Porto and Benfica reign supreme, Spain's La Liga is well-known for the Barcelona and Real Madrid commandment and Serbia's SuperLiga frequently sees FK Partizan stamp their authority on proceedings. Steaua Bucuresti are the league's most successful team with 23 titles and Dinamo București boast 18 which speaks volumes about the clubs illustrious histories.
But, since the duo have steadily fallen downhill. Steaua could only manage to cement a 3rd place finish last campaign and Dinamo had to settle with 5th place - with such finishes seen as poor considering the clubs high expectations. But with this decline in fortunes from the division's powerhouses creates an opportunity for sides wanting to break the duopoly: enter CFR Cluj.
Cluj, who have won the Liga 1 title three times (a laughable achievement in comparison to Steaua's record), are a club on the up. Coached by Ioan Andone, who took over close to the end of last season, they are the first non-Bucharest team to clinch the championship. Courtesy of participation in the Champions League, Cluj are developing at a rapid rate and attracting the attention of people overseas. It's a club with big ambitions, but eager supporters must learn to understand that this operation will take time. The operation being to try and edge Steaua out the way in terms of domestic success, and make their voices heard in Liga 1 for years to come.
Cluj have a lot going for them. They secured the Liga 1 title last season finishing on 71 points and this provided hope heading into this campaign - which we are 11 match days into. Team morale is on a high, coach Andone seems a good man-manager and fans are right behind the team. But, despite all this, it hasn't been the best of starts to the new term...
The club currently operate 7th position in the league table - but some are arguing it's partially down to the fact they are also featuring in Champions League ties on a regular basis, too, which affects fatigue levels. Steaua, on the other hand, playing without any extra European fixtures - are simply storming ahead, summiting the table.
But on Sunday, it could have been a whole lot different. Cluj travelled to Steaua in what was seen as an important title cruncher. It was a pivotal match in deciding who would take the lead in the title race, and who would build the foundations in which to go on and make giant strides.
Raul Rusescu's 76th minute strike gifted Steaua the victory, in what could prove vital in the final league standings. Cluj looked lacklustre in parts, unable to adapt to the physicality and dynamism that Steaua produced. Deserved winners, many now think they will go onto win the title. It's close to call.
Cluj have the capabilities of clawing back and making up ground. After all, Liga 1 is filled with unpredictability. But you would, undoubtedly, be foolish to cast a shadow over Steaua who when in the mood are devastatingly efficient. They may well look back at the weekend's win and claim those three points gave them the league, it's so tight. The margins are so close.
And Steaua are not only able to perform to a high level in the big matches but have the players to match. Alexandru Bourceanu, the skipper, is a combative midfielder who is often integral in the side's fortunes. Brazilian forward Gabriel Machado, who joined in January, is a skilful and sharp attacker who can score goals while 23-year-old central defender Florin Gardos doesn't mess around at the back. It's an impressive setup they have. But then again, Cluj stand proud to a talented squad.
Whether or not the weekend's result determines the final outcome of which team wins the Liga 1 title, we shall have to wait and see. You never know, another team could sneak up and grab the trophy; stranger things have happened. But one thing is for sure: Steaua's superiority in the latest match of the title race should certainly stand them in good stead ahead of a campaign which promises plenty of twists and turns. Over to you, Cluj...