Thanks to Unirea Urziceni’s exploits over the past year, Dan Petrescu’s reputation as an ambitious and confident young coach has been enhanced immeasurably, particularly due to a couple of barnstorming performances in the Champions League. In Romania however, the secret has been out for some time. Under his stewardship Unirea performed heroically in the latter half of the decade just gone. Taking charge in their debut season in Liga I, the former Chelsea player guided them to 10th place, followed by an impressive 5th the following season, and an appearance in the Romanian Cup final, thus gaining entry into the 2008/09 edition of the now defunct UEFA Cup.
The true testament to Petrescu’s ability as a coach came the following season, when his side won the league with three matches still to play. The title had been wrestled from the arms of Dinamo Bucharest a year earlier by CFR Cluj, ending 16 years of clubs from the capital dominating the championship.
Unirea Urziceni’s domestic triumph was the outstanding achievement though, especially given their meagre budget and hailing from a town with a population of around 20,000 inhabitants. Petrescu built his team around an impregnable defence, marshalled by imposing club captain George Galamaz and very ably assisted by Romanian international Vasile Maftei, working to such good effect that a mere 20 league goals were conceded over the course of the season. The mantra of the side was for every player to be comfortable on the ball in each phase of play, whilst utilising the space of the pitch by moving the ball quickly and accurately to either flank.
If Unirea’s Champions League campaign was to present a truer testing ground for Petrescu’s tactical acumen, he passed with flying colours. The Scottish press was awash with stories of Rangers’ impending victory over the (apparent) Romanian minnows; revenge was certainly on the mind of the Glaswegian club after their inept display in the previous game against Sevilla. The 90 minutes that ensued was as cataclysmic for Rangers’ prospects of qualification as it was brilliant for conveying the Petrescu brand across the continent. Although the Scots’ did start with some fine play, Petrescu’s strategic decision to withdraw a defender for a striker early in the game tactically outmanoeuvred his managerial counterpart and secured maximum points for Unirea, inflicting a consecutive 4-1 home defeat for Rangers.
The quality Unirea displayed during their debut Champions League campaign meant that the transition from domestic to European competition had been achieved, despite their inability to finish in the top two of their group. The tinge of sadness felt at expulsion from the competition quickly evaporated when the draw was announced for the knock-out stage of the Europa League; Unirea Urziceni would be facing Liverpool.
The exciting and evocative prospect of preparing for the biggest match in the club’s history further galvanised Petrescu’s ambition. Potential suitors would be observing with interest the manner in which the coach and his players conducted themselves against such esteemed opposition. Having been linked heavily with the Scotland national team job before Christmas, the Romanian knew Britain was a viable avenue for future employment. Petrescu’s eventual departure was borne of his indomitable determination to compete, regardless of the stature of the opposition. A disagreement over recruitment policy with the board of directors followed, and brought a premature end to the fairytale, with the 42-year-old being angered by the refusal of the club’s hierarchy to release funds to strengthen the squad. Time will tell whether Unirea Urziceni’s meteoric rise was exclusively down to their former talented coach.
Israeli tactician Ronnie Levy is the man the club have vouched for in their bid to maintain their current momentum; with three consecutive titles at Maccabi Haifa from the 2003/04 season onwards he would seem to be an astute choice. At the time of writing Unirea are currently sitting in second place behind former champions CFR Cluj, and with the glamour fixture against Liverpool edging ever closer Levy will have little time to adapt and motivate a squad that was devoted to Dan Petrescu’s methods.
Whilst there is little doubt that Petrescu will look fondly on his experiences with Unirea Urziceni he has wasted little time in taking up a new challenge. His decision to embark upon an adventure in the Russian Second Division with Kuban Krasnodar seems to suggest this is a long term project. Kuban were relegated in the 2009 edition of the Russian Premier League, suffering a 3-0 defeat on the last day against the much vaunted Rubin Kazan.
With a five-year contract signed in time for the New Year’s festivities, Petrescu has it all to do in 2010. Kuban have a vociferous support at their 32,000 capacity stadium that will expect success in the short-term, and with Petrescu being only the second foreign coach in the club’s history it is unclear whether the Romanian will be given much time to familiarise himself with the trials and tribulations of second-tier Russian football.
What is obvious however is Petrescu’s burning desire to compete at the highest level. He has already set about remoulding his newly acquired squad with the signing of stylish Romanian attacker Ianis Zicu and is reportedly bidding for giant Palermo centre-back Dorin Goian. If Kuban’s new coach continues in the same vein then surely the Krasnodar based club can expect to return to the Premier League sooner rather than later. And with Petrescu’s track record of extracting every last morsel of talent out of his players the odds should not be against him bloodying the noses of the famous Moscow clubs when he gets there.