UEFA Europa League

Unirea Urziceni

Liverpool’s Europa League campaign begins today against Unirea Urziceni. The surprise champions of the Romanian league made a good showing in the Champions League group stage, finishing in third place and only one point behind Stuttgart.

Urziceni is located in southeast Romania. It takes almost half the town to fill up the 7,000 seat stadium where Unirea Urziceni plays their home games. Thus, the team has been using Steaua Buchuresti’s massive facility 15 miles away for Champions league fixtures. This agreement is one of many between Urziceni owner Dumitru Bucsaru and Bucuresti’s Gigi Becali. The two oligarchs are close business associates and they have grown closer as Unirea has rocketed up the Romanian league ladder. This has led to speculation that Becali is considering a takeover of Urziceni. Both businessmen made their money through dubious land deals with the government (or in Becali’s case, the army) so their interests are intertwined on many levels.

In December, Unirea manager Dan Petrescu left the club to join recently demoted Russian side Kuban Krasnodar. Petrescu’s departure has only fueled rumors that big changes are in store for Unirea. New coach Ronny Levy was recently fired from Maccabi Petach Tikva, but he previously led Israeli powerhouse Maccabi Haifa to three championships. His arrival could coincide with the signing of more foreign talent in the summer, with Unirea groomed as an able competitor for Bucuresti. This would alleviate the pressure on Romanian football to introduce more competition to the league. It would also allow owner Bucsaru to clear out some of the players who are intensely loyal to Petrescu, the only top division manager the team has ever had.

Currently, Unirea sit in a three-way tie for first place in the Romanian league with surprisingly resilient Cluj and Bucuresti. But they should take heart: When they play at Anfield today it will be one of the few times all season their opponent will have more front office issues than they do.

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