Playing Romania, you hit a brick wall: They conceded only two goals in their 10 Euro-qualification-matches
Main player profile: Vlad Chiriches
Vlad Chiriches has not had an easy time of things at club level with either Tottenham Hotspur or Napoli, but that has no bearing on his influence for Romania. He was a powerful presence throughout the Euro 2016 qualifiers and travels to France as one of the team’s undisputed leaders, aiming to cause a surprise with the national team while proving his critics wrong.
This first appearance at a major international tournament will be the biggest test of Chiriches’ career. There will be questions hanging over him: is he capable of fulfilling his immense potential at last, or will he simply go through the summer adding minutes to his CV without making a genuine impact himself?
Those inside the camp are certain he can achieve the former as Romania look to achieve their goal of reaching the knock-out phase. "Chiriches's role is fundamental", believes the manager Anghel Iordanescu, although the 26-year-old does not want to place too much pressure on his own shoulders. "The generation I’m part of has an asset – the unity inside the group," he says. "I’m not one for making statements; I just need to stay focused. It would be a mistake to think of anything other than my game."
His impact in the Premier League and, latterly, Serie A might not have been the most positive – Chiriches has started just 18 league games in the last two seasons – but he has retained his aura in the national team. Romania’s defence is their selling point; they conceded just twice during the qualifying campaign, fewer than anyone else, and the commanding centre-back was to the fore. Perhaps it helps that Chiriches is used to getting straight back up after being hit. He spent a season as a youth player at Benfica but was forced to return home after a series of bad injuries – at one point fearing that his career would not get off the ground.
"I was afraid football was over for me," Chiriches says. "But I went down to the second division, put the effort in and gave my all to return to the level I was at before. God helped my with my every decision. I was training with Benfica's first team and then two injuries ended everything for me – but that didn't destroy me."
He might not have managed it without the motivating presence of one family member. "My mother was very important – she helped me a lot and said I would come back," he says. "And it was exactly as she said. I owe her a lot; she was the one who insisted I took my school studies seriously too, and I was very good in maths and history."
Football was always the ambition though, even if it took time to settle into life as a central defender. "I was a left midfielder when I was a kid," he explains. "I started when I was eight, then I left home for good at 14. That’s the sacrifice I had to make as a kid in order to become a professional. I had nothing guaranteed; I was only a child with a dream. I had to live away from my family and that hurt, but it was worth it." Chiriches’ fall from grace at Tottenham was sudden. He went from being man of the match in a 2-1 win at Old Trafford on 1 January 2014 to backup status in under six months. A back injury did not help; nor did a change of managers at his club and perhaps video footage of him falling over, seemingly drunk, in the snow back in his homeland did not count in his favour either. Whatever the cause, he fell out of favour and never hit the same heights again.
"I wasn't playing, so I wasn't happy", he says. The left-footer’s subsequent move to the right side of the defence did not help and he made just three appearances for Tottenham in the second half of the 2014-15 season – although it did not harm his position in the Romania team. "The national team gave me so much," he says. "It is all about the pride and joy you feel when you play for your country. It's always immense to be among those selected and I enjoy every minute of it. Being here helped me stay focused and our results gave great satisfaction."
Chiriches can expect to wear the captain’s armband in Paris on 10 June when Romania open the tournament against host nation France. The Romania dressing room is abuzz with delight rather than fear.
"France will be tough and playing at home makes them even tougher," he says. "I'm dreaming of making a historical performance, but I know how difficult this will be. We are fighting for our country and for our dreams, and nobody can take that away." His central defensive partnership with Dragoș Grigore is one of the few matters in which Iordanescu has been able to take complete satisfaction long before the start of Euro 2016. Romania's strength came from the back during qualifying, but Chiricheș can do something to change that himself.
When he arrived in the Premier League, Chiriches was known for his ability to come out of defence with the ball. He was forced to adapt his style in England and such forays were rarely seen; there are no such restrictions in the national team, though, and his offensive raids often launch dangerous attacks.
Despite Chiriches’ enthusiasm for marauding upfield, Romania’s current style of play owes little to a general appetite for attack. They put on an encouraging performance in a 0-0 draw with Spain in March, though, and that served as a spectacular confidence boost for players and fans alike. Against the reigning European champions, Iordanescu’s men put on an electric display and would not have been flattered by a win.
"The generation I'm part of made it to France thanks to a major collective effort," says Chiriches. "It guided us throughout the qualifying campaign, and this unity is our main asset. I hope it helps us now, as it has done so far. Going to France for the final tournament cannot be compared to anything else, and we hope to do things the right way. A good performance could help provide a new perspective on Romania as a nation."
At his best, Chiriches might just help make that happen. His £8.5m move to Tottenham from Steaua Bucharest in 2013 set a Romanian league transfer record with his skill, use of the ball and comfort in possession setting a new standard for centre-backs in the country. He scored spectacular goals against Ajax and Molde in the Europa League, while his elegance and creativity were such that Steaua changed their tactics to allow him the freedom his talent merited.
Now he goes to Euro 2016 with the aim of showing the world a new version of Romanian brilliance – perhaps not the same kind in which the likes of Gheorghe Hagi, Adrian Ilie, Dan Petrescu or Adrian Mutu shone, but one whose group strength could be the envy of its peers.
"These are the occasions that make you fall in love with football," he says. "I can't wait for the tournament to begin. Down there, on the pitch, the joy of playing will be huge for all of us. We'll have an entire nation behind us, we'll all be Romania and if we stay together we are capable of doing big things – trust me."
Tactics and key questions
With the stingiest defence in qualification – Romania conceded only two goals in their 10 matches – Anghel Iordanescu will again play to his strengths; namely making the most of a core of underrated, hard-working and hungry players in a disciplined 4-2-3-1 system.
Fiorentina’s Ciprian Tatarusanu is settled as the first-choice goalkeeper but Iordanescu’s biggest defence headache is finding a suitable right-back. Paul Papp was first choice during qualification but has been woeful form at Steaua Bucharest, where he has been frequently dropped, so Pandurii’s Cristian Sapunaru, formerly of Porto, or Dinamo Zagreb’s Alexandru Matel are more likely options. At left-back is Iordanescu’s captain Razvan Rat, recently returned from shoulder surgery.
Vlad Chiriches, now at Napoli after an ill-fated spell at Tottenham, and Dragos Grigore are the favourites to occupy the centre-back positions with Ludogorets’ Cosmin Moti and Steaua’s Gabi Tamas providing back-up. Chiriches has the most experience and is arguably Iordanescu’s most valuable player but his performances this season have been littered by simple mistakes at critical moments and a tendency to lose his head when one-on-one.
Screening the back four from defensive midfield will be Ovidiu Hoban of Hapoel Be'er Sheva and Steaua’s Mihai Pintilii. Both are disciplined and impressive at breaking up the play but offer little in the way of attacking threat.
And that is Iordanescu’s greatest quandary. For all that Romania are reliable in defence and effective on the counterattack, the question remains what the manager will do should his side find themselves behind. As demonstrated in qualification, without a plan B, the attacking burden rests heavy on Iordanescu’s front four.
Competing for the sole striker position is Denis Alibec – the standout centre-forward in Romania this season – Florin Andone, who has been shining at Cordoba in Spain, and Claudiu Keseru, currently plying his trade at Osmanlispor. All three are in great form but Alibec would appear to be the front-runner, even if Iordanescu has criticised the former Inter forward for being overweight.
But it is the makeup of the three-man line behind the centre-forward that Iordanescu must get right. On the right Steaua’s Adi Popa and Gabriel Torje – on loan at Osmanlispor from Udinese – are two speedy wingers and they will compete for a place in the side while on the left Bogdan Stancu is likely to start. Stancu has performed will for Genclerbirligi this season, was key for Romania in qualification and his long-range shooting is a dangerous weapon, even if he can go missing for large spells of matches.
And in the middle Iordanescu must chose between young and old. Nicusor Stanciu, 23, has announced himself as Steaua’s new start this season, dazzling in the No10 role with his dribbling, excellent passing and dangerous free-kicks. He was also excellent in Romania’s goalless draw with Spain in March. Or there is the 35-year-old Lucian Sanmartean, currently seeing out the twilight of his career with Al Ittihad in Saudi Arabia but a wizard of a player nonetheless.
Probable starting XI: (4-2-3-1): Tătărușanu – Săpunaru, Chiricheș, Grigore, Raț – Hoban, Pintilii – Popa, Stanciu, Stancu – Andone
- Which Romania player is going to surprise everyone at the Euros?
Florin Andone plays in Spain’s second tier with Cordoba but has the capacity to trouble high-profile opposition. Smart, quick, strong and willing to fight for his goals, Andone will be Romania’s main goalscoring hope at Euro 2016.
- Who is the player who is going to disappoint the most?
Răzvan Raț had a complicated season at Rayo, which ended with relegation to the Spanish second division. The 35 year-old was out for months after undergoing shoulder surgery, but his status as captain ensured he was called up to the squad that will travel to France. If fully fit, he is certain to start at left-back.
- What is the realistic aim for your team at the Euros and why?
If the managers and his players can raise their self-esteem and not get bogged down in obvious frustrations, Romania can reach the knock-out stage of the tournament. The team hopes that its reactive, compact style of football will probe a competitive alternative to what previous generations have shown on the international stage. In the likes of Andone, Chiriches and Stanciu, they have players with the hunger to make it happen – even in an era when Romanian football has no geniuses.
Secrets behind the players
- Anghel Iordanescu – manager
Iordanescu returned for a third bite of the cherry as national team coach in 2014, after eight years without coaching a team. He had been busy in the meantime, serving as a senator in the Romanian parliament, but came back to the fold despite having supported the opposing candidate, Gica Popescu, ahead of the current FA president Razvan Burleanu.
A very religious man who often kisses icons of saints before games, Iordanescu is a general in the Romanian army – a title awarded for merit in sport – and has a formidable CV, winning the European Cup as player/assistant manager with Steaua Bucharest, who were the army team, in 1986. He was also an unsuccessful candidate to become mayor of Bucharest in 2012. His nickmane, "Tata Puiu", translates as "Father Chicken".
- Costel Pantilimon
The Watford goalkeeper’s parents, who worked at an aeroplane factory in the city of Bacau, are both deaf. They first took their son to play with the family’s football team when he was six. "At the age of eight or nine, my father told me I should be a goalkeeper, because I am pretty tall and it should be easier," Pantililon remembers. He now stands at 6ft 8in. After becoming a professional goalkeeper, he always made sure to send money to his parents and still goes on holiday with them sometimes. Pantilimon’s father rarely attends his matches but brought good luck then he did, seeing Poli Timisoara beat Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League third qualifying round in 2009. "I thank my parents for all they did and still do for me," he says. "The fact that they are deaf has never affected me at all. When I am away, we keep in touch by SMS and via the internet." His first wage packet, from an appearance for one of the national youth teams, was a princely $90. "I bought myself a pair of shoes and gave the rest to my parents," he recalls.
- Bogdan Stancu
Stancu’s nickname is "Motanul" – meaning "The Cat". He is more of a Tomcat to be precise, due to the shyness he has exhibited since childhood. As a youngster he preferred to spend time alone, and was very sensitive. He almost quit football when he lost his father at the age of 14, but persevered – and he also plays tennis, as well as the Fifa computer games.
- Gabriel Torje
Born in Timisoara, Torje was brought into the local top-flight team by Gheorghe Hagi, the coach at the time, who saw big potential in the 16-year-old. He then signed for one of Timisoara’s big rivals, Dinamo Bucharest, who bragged at the time: "We got their heart". A few years later he caused controversy when caught on camera at a party singing a song in support of Dinamo’s fierce city rivals, Steaua, which went: "Steaua is the only one, all the world should know this." To confuse matters further he then cried when Dinamo lost a cup final to Steaua, causing the Steaua fans to devise a song along the lines of "Cry, Torje, cry". He is not into electronic football games like Fifa, but does play a lot of Call of Duty on his computer.
- Denis Alibec
Alibec’s weight promoted what almost amounted to a nationwide debate. Despite his excellent form in the Romanian top flight, Iordanescu sometimes refused to call him up to the national team, saying he was too fat. "He needs to lose two or three kilos before I call him," Iordanescu said. Alibec argued that that the accusation was not true – his weight is ideal, he says, but he is very muscular. He enjoys playing Counter Strike on his computer and has plenty of tattoos – to which he claims he will add another of the date Romania qualify from Group A.
- Vlad Chiriches
The most expensive player ever to have been sold by a Romanian top flight club, for €8.5m from Steaua to Tottenham, Chiriches loves going to the theatre. He enjoys sitcoms such as Modern Family, the Simpsons and Family Guy too, and admires other sportsmen like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. He is said to have spent €500,000 on his wedding, held in Florence, to which 400 guests were invited.
- Claudiu Keseru
Keseru once cried when his father did not let him go to football training after getting a ‘9’ grade at school (a score of 10 being the maximum). He entered local maths Olympiads and was the first child in his year to be admitted into high school. That was set by his parents as a condition for him to play football, and he went from strength to strength, learning his trade with several clubs in France and becoming a fan of PSG. He particularly likes Blaise Matuidi, and includes the midfielder in his best world XI.
- Razvan Rat
Rat is an avid wine collector, a hobby he began while playing for Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine – where he met his wife, too. He grew up in a small Romanian town, Piatra-Olt, where he watched the country’s legendary 1994 World Cup campaign at his neighbours’ house because his family did not have a television. These days, he loves fast cars and owns two Ferraris.
- Nicolae Stanciu
Stanciu is the national team’s newest star – but doesn’t like it if you call him "Nicusor", which is a diminutive of Nicolae. When he returned from his first-ever game of football as a boy, he came back home upset, complaining: "Nobody passes to me." At home, he helped his parents work in agriculture. "We didn’t take him in order to work, but just so that he wasn’t left alone. He always ran off to play football, though," remembers his mother. Indeed, sometimes Stanciu left home at 6am, took a 15km bus ride to the nearest city, and returned at 9pm. He asked for his bedroom to be painted in red and blue, with the logo of his favourite team Steaua – for whom he now plays. In the past, he was passionate about slot machines and sports betting.
Ciprian Tatarusanu (AC Fiorentina)
Costel Pantilimon (FC Watford)
Silviu Lung (Astra Giurgiu)
Cristian Sapunaru (Pandurii Targu Jiu)
Alexandru Matel (Dinamo Zagreb)
Vlad Chiriches (SSC Napoli)
Valerica Gaman (Astra Giurgiu)
Dragos Grigore (Al Sailiya/QAT)
Cosmin Moti (Ludogorez Rasgrad)
Razvan Rat (Rayo Vallecano)
Steliano Filip (Dinamo Bukarest)
Mihai Pintilii (Steaua Bukarest)
Ovidiu Hoban (Hapoel Beersheba/ISR)
Andrei Prepelita (Ludogorez Rasgrad)
Adrian Popa (Steaua Bukarest)
Gabriel Torje (Osmanlispor/TUR)
Alexandru Chipciu (Steaua Bukarest)
Nicolae Stanciu (Steaua Bukarest)
Lucian Sanmartean (Al Ittihad/KSA)
Claudiu Keseru (Ludogorez Rasgrad)
Bogdan Stancu (Genclerbirligi)
Florin Andone (FC Cordoba)
Denis Alibec (Astra Giurgiu)