CFR Cluj v Manchester Utd, 7.45pm
2 October ~ Romanian football over the last few years has descended into a contest between a group of (mostly) shouty fat middle-aged men with money to burn in the quest to service their egos. The football teams they buy in the quest to get as much airtime for their bluster are more or less irrelevant, with coaches hired and fired at will just to ensure the owner’s media presence stays high. CFR Cluj have had a poor start to the season in the league, and in normal circumstances coach Ioan Andone, having led the club to their third title in five seasons, would already have been out on his ear. The reason that he still has a job is their European form.
UEFA’s coefficient system meant that, for the first time in many years, Romania’s champions would have to qualify for the Champions League group stages, and nobody gave CFR much of a chance of doing so, especially when they drew Basel in the final round. But they prevailed against the odds and so progressed to the group phase, whereupon they were drawn against Basel’s own surprise victims from last year, Manchester United.
For the Romanian media, and it would seem even for CFR themselves, the chance to play against last year’s second-best team in Manchester is the big achievement in and of itself. Ever since the draw was announced, the upcoming visit of Wayne Rooney and co to Transylvania has been the big event that everyone has waited for (radio stations are giving away tickets to the match as prizes, in much the same way they do to huge pop concerts, and in essence this sums up all you need to know about the way this match is seen here).
CFR’s first game in the group saw them register another surprise win, away to Braga, but even so nobody expects anything better than a battling defeat, even with Man Utd’s patchy form this season. Indeed historical precedent seems to be against them – in 2008-09 in CFR’s first appearance in the Champions League, a poor league start saw the then coach, one Ioan Andone (who at that time had just led the club to their first-ever League title), sacked unceremoniously after just six games. The club then proceeded to win their first Champions League game 2-1 at Roma in a big shock. They soon came back to earth with a bump in the rest of the group (which featured Chelsea), and finishing bottom with just four points.
At best the limits of CFR’s ambitions this year would seem to be third place and the Europe League slot. Still, the anticipation will be high in Transylvania’s capital as the locals all try to catch a glimpse of the global megastars (and Michael Carrick). Andy Hockley